By CHEVEL JOHNSON and STACEY PLAISANCE, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The first of four nights spotlighting R&B music kicked off Thursday with performances at the Essence Music Festival by industry newcomers, including the Disney Channel's Coco Jones and rapper Diggy Simmons.
Opening day was all about recognizing the young and rising stars to the music scene, while the rest of the weekend was geared toward veterans in the industry, including Aretha Franklin, Charlie Wilson and Mary J. Blige.
For the first time in more than two years, fans will also get to see rap artist Eve, who isn't calling her Essence appearance a "comeback," but rather a "reintroduction."
Though out of the American music spotlight for more than two years, the rapper and actress has regularly performed in venues across Europe and Asia. Still, she said she's excited about her U.S. return and Sunday closing night performance at the Superdome, which will include two shows in one of the music festival's SuperLounges.
"I'm happy to be a part of such an amazing event," she said. "I've always wanted to go (to the festival) just as a fan, but now, to be able to go and perform, I know it will be great. Everybody I've talked to who has done it said they've enjoyed it. I know it's gonna be fun."
Eve said she has no doubt that her show will reinforce the decision by event organizers to book her — even though she's been under the radar.
"They will see that I haven't lost a thing, haven't missed a step, haven't skipped a beat," she said. "I'm sure there will be some who haven't seen me live in years or maybe ever, but I'm most comfortable on stage and I'm sure I will get them in."
Coco's high energy Essence debut included a cover of "1, 2 Step," the hip-hop song recorded by Ciara and Missy Elliott. The set was full of "fun songs about empowerment, having a party, living a stress-free life. It's all good messages."
After the show, she said she "loved the experience."
"I was able to see the fans' faces and I could see they were having a good time," she said. "That's what it's all about.
The OMG Girlz, Roshon Fegan, Katlyn Nichol, Square Off and New Orleans' own The Roots of Music also performed.
Fegan, who rocked the stage with his club, hip-hop style that he described as along the lines of an "upbeat Bruno Mars," said he would remember his performance for a long time.
"It was amazing," he said. "Stepping on a stage this huge and knowing I'm performing where other great performers have is truly amazing," said Fegan, 20, who produces and writes his own songs and also plays three instruments.
Simmons, too, said the experiencing was incredible. "It really makes me feel good to know that I'm headlining and participating in an Essence event," he said. "Focusing on the youth doing positive things and knowing that I'm a part is really a good feeling."
As in years past, the festival tackles themes of importance to African Americans, such as education and the coming presidential election. But above all, Essence is a celebration of music. Other veteran artists scheduled to perform include Ledisi, Fantasia, Chaka Khan, Trey Songz and D'Angelo, who last month gave his first live performance in the United States in 12 years at Bonnaroo.
R&B singer-songwriter Vivian Green said she's looking forward to her second opportunity to take a stage at the event. Green performs Friday night while fellow R&B singer Stephanie Mills is slated to deliver two shows — one Friday night and another Saturday.
"This is a really big deal," said Green, who will entertain fans with her hits including "Emotional Rollercoaster" and "Gotta Go Gotta Leave (Tired)."
"It's the biggest black music festival in the United States. What an amazing platform to have the chance at that type of exposure," she said. "A lot of our fans are from small venues that we as artists don't always get to and this event allows us to reach them because the audience includes people from all over."
Green said the festival exudes "great energy."
"There's always a crowd that gives out a lot of love," she said.
In addition to the music, education will be at the forefront of discussions throughout the weekend because many Essence readers have said they feel the demands on young people have become "more sophisticated" in the areas of science and technology, said Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks.
"There's a big difference even from just a generation ago. Many feel as though the opportunities, the ability to pursue opportunities for the next generation, will be harder. There's a global economy that our children will have to be competitive in," Ebanks said.
The July issue of Essence magazine features an interview with President Barack Obama, and the festival will expound on issues surrounding the coming election, such as the economy, "being able to pay the bills from day to day, hardships and challenges such as unemployment," as well as the housing market crisis, Ebanks said.
Among the opening-day speakers were New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who launched a mentoring project called "Saving Our Sons," to help curb crime and violence in the city. His wife, Cheryl, also talked about her program, "Girl Up NOLA," which seeks to inspire and motivate young girls.
"Crime is an epidemic in every major city across the nation," Ebanks said. "The mayor is calling on the entire community to invest in the lives of young men to help prevent violence by putting them on a path to where they are able to focus more on school, on getting an education, to be less likely to get involved in violence."
Essence is one of the premiere music festivals celebrating black culture and music. It's been held every Independence Day weekend since its inception in 1995, when it marked the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine.
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