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Essence Fest honors its legends and gets political with Michelle Obama during its 25th anniversary


Erika Goldring/Getty ImagesThe musical acts at this year’s Essence Festival of Culture took a back seat during the annual fest, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this weekend. While concert-goers still came out for the usual all-star lineup and surprise performances at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which included the likes of Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige and Nas, the main attraction for fans this year was former first lady Michelle Obama.

The Saturday interview, which was to promote her best selling memoir, Becoming, was Mrs. Obama’s first official appearance at Essence Fest. Hosted by CBS’ Gayle King, Mrs. Obama touched on a variety of subjects, including her last day in the White House, her first date with her husband, former President Barack Obama, and the crowd favorite — the power of the black woman.

“The power we have as black folks, particularly as black women. The power of our voice and our story and our narrative. You know, we underestimate it because they want us to underestimate it,” Mrs. Obama said. “But I’m here to tell you, there is nothing we can’t do or change when we as a collective put our minds to it. We’re, we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

“But that means we gotta roll up our sleeves and do the work and do it every single time,” she continued. “We’ve got to vote in every election, we have to be informed and engaged and aware we gotta wait for things to be better…And as women, we’ve got to take the lead in that regard.”

Although fans came in droves to see Mrs. Obama and hear her inspiring speech, the former first lady was just one of the weekend’s highlights. 

Friday night, artists including LedisiMorris DayLuke James, Shelia E. and Major helped honor the legends by doing tributes to the late Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, the latter of whom later surprised the audience by coming on stage to receive an award.

The first night also served as a celebration of Prince, whose image and close-up concert footage of his past performances was projected on the Superdome’s huge LED screens around the venue. 

To close the night, Missy Elliott rocked the audience with songs like “Get UR Freak On,” “Work It,” and “Pass That Dutch.” She later brought out singer Monica for “So Gone,” a 2003 song that Elliott both co-wrote and produced. 

On Saturday night, H.E.R., Nas and Mary J. Blige were just some of the musical acts that had fans on their feet.

It was a big night for Queens rapper Nas in particular: he was also celebrating the 25th anniversary of his classic debut album, Illmatic. Nas was supported by both a deejay and a live drummer as he flowed through songs from his past projects.

Blige, who followed Mrs. Obama and closed the show, made sure to sing fan favorites like “I’m Goin’ Down,” “No More Drama,” and “Just Fine.” She also made sure to show off her signature Mary J. Blige dance moves, which had the crowd roaring with approval.

Sunday night, songwriter and king of new jack swing Teddy Riley graced the stage and brought out numerous guest stars during his set. Some of those acts included Blackstreet, Pharrell, and Doug E. Fresh, who all joined him to sing their classic hits.

However, it came as no surprise that Sunday’s night’s closer was the iconic Frankie Beverly, who was given the key to city of New Orleans by its mayor LaToya Cantrell. After the honor, Beverly brought down the Superdome house by singing classic songs like “Happy Feelings,” “Joy and Pain,” and — the signature song for black family reunions across the nation — “Before I Let Go.”

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