The Essence Music Festival (July 1) kicked off with heavy hitters while the sun was still out on Saturday evening in New Orleans. “I never seen this many people here this early,” one young lady said as she walked to the entrance of the SuperDome. “It’s Monica,” her friend responded. “You know people wasn’t gon’ miss Monica. On the main stage too? I don’t know why they have her on so early, but they not missing her.” All those fans can thank Mary J Blige for curating the artist list for the evening -- the main stage and all four SuperLounges upstairs hosted all female artists. MJB’s lineup had become a sort of all-inclusive, Strength of a Woman engagement, named after her latest album.
Ari Lennox opened up the main stage and Monica was just after. The latter strutted out onstage in her metallic overcoat, shorts and thigh high boots, smiling at the endless rows of people who had jumped to their feet, cheering. She may not have ever touched the main stage before at Essence but Monica excelled at holding it down, running through hits from her days as "Miss Thang" to her adult years as accompanying music videos flashed on screens on either side of her. Festival attendees sang along with "Before You Walk Out My Life" "So Gone" and "Don't Take It Personal," before the Dome fell silent for her heartfelt tribute to Whitney Houston with a rendition of "You Give Good Love." Her set was simple -- strong vocals and a touch of nostalgia for a crowd that longed for '90s R&B or at least the feel of it.
Jazmine Sullivan was next up on the main stage and her voice has never sounded stronger, particularly on songs like "Forever Don't Last." She sat perched on a stool center stage beside an electric guitarist and bobbed back and forth, "But trying don't work so I just have to face that forever doesn't last too long these days..." There was a woman in the crowd being held from behind, her male companion had wrapped his arms around her midriff, they were swaying and tears welled up in her eyes. Another young woman within earshot commented, "See? Her voice just too powerful."
Upstairs in the SuperLounges, Ladies' Night continued. Newcomer Lizzo had opened the Ford lounge and PJ opened the Essence lounge. For the duration of the evening, fans were treated to sets from Miche'le, Lalah Hathaway, Jhene Aiko and The Jones Girls featuring Shirley Jones. Teyana Taylor was at Coca Cola's Hot Right Now SuperLounge, feeling supremely grateful onstage. "I ain't gon' front. When Essence called it was like 'But the album came out a year ago, nobody gon' remember it'," she said this to an audience full of women, all beaming in her direction. "But thank y'all. You dealt with me and my broken nail tonight, broken zipper, my loose wig..."
Across a few gates, Remy Ma was maintaining her own set at the Essence SuperLounge, with none other than her husband Papoose right beside her. He was granted an exception though; the audience seemed to crave seeing the married couple interact, live and direct onstage instead of through a television screen. "People ask me all the time, if me and my husband battle...," she shared, walking across the stage, her glittery catsuit shimmering under the lights. "And I'm like 'Yasss, and I burn him every time.'" Squeals sounded from all over the packed room and the two jumped into their collaborative, lovestruck joint "Michael Jackson" to the delight of woman in the room.
Downstairs on the main stage, Jill Scott commanded the crowd with her extensive catalogue: “So in Love,” “Hate On Me,” “Long Walk,” “Golden” and a number of others that reminded concertgoers that Scott had been doing this for longer than many give her credit for. There was a stadium full of people though, that were well aware and the songstress played up her strengths. When the music started for “The Way,” the crowd was prepared. “Woke up this morning...,” the lyrics reverbed from the floor way up into the top deck. “With a smile on my face...”
Well warmed up for Mary J Blige and a special performance from Chaka Khan, the audience buzzed in anticipation after Jilly From Philly wrapped up.
MJB returned to the Essence Music Festival main stage with a level of confidence unexpected from somebody with so much of her personal business in the streets currently. With her ‘b-girl’ sensibilities intact, Mary swaggered, bounced and paraded back and forth all night. From What’s the 411? to Strength of a Woman, the songstress wove in and out of hits, both classic and modern. “Go Auntie! Go Auntie!,” a pair of women screamed from the floor of the Dome. Blige ended up doing a modified version of “Set Me Free” from her latest album. “I’ma set you free...,” she sang, “Even if I gotta pay for it.” Women in the audience hollered their approval.
Blige did an incredible job of curating the evening’s lineup at the SuperDome with Chaka Khan capping the night off on the main stage. Songs like “Sweet Thang“ and “Tell Me Something Good” whet our collective palate and the grand finale, “I’m Every Woman” with Ari Lennox, Blige, Lalah Hathaway and Jazmine Sullivan solidified the theme of the night ensuring that everyone in attendance was aware of the Strength of a Woman.