NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nearly two decades after Essence magazine launched a festival here to "party with a purpose" and celebrate black culture, music and people, the Essence Fest may be facing some new competition.
Like Essence this weekend, last weekend's BET Experience, held in Los Angeles, had Beyonce as a headliner. It also had panels discussing topics important to the community and spanned a three-day weekend — a format Essence until recently had used for years.
But Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., said the similarities end there.
"Yes, there's some overlap," Ebanks acknowledged. "But we're relentlessly focused on our community and serving the black woman like no one else does or can because she's worth it. That's our goal and we believe we do that better than anyone else."
So far there's no sign that the BET Experience — a celebrity-driven lead-in to the cable network's BET Awards show — is taking away from the Essence experience in New Orleans.
The city's hotels are showing healthy bookings, and music fans are ready to party. Many are arriving early to catch the Essence Festival's outdoor celebration on the riverfront on Thursday.
Hotel occupancy is at 97 percent for Friday and Saturday, said Kelly Schulz, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said Essence brought 413,000 people to New Orleans last year and generated an economic impact of more than $100 million.
Ebanks said the 19th annual festival is "shaping up to be one of the biggest we've ever had."
"The numbers aren't in but the level of talent on tap is an extraordinary testament to Essence and what it means to its community," she said.
Besides Beyonce, Essence's nightly concerts held in the Superdome will include performances by Maxwell, Jill Scott, Charlie Wilson, LL Cool J, New Edition, Emile Sande, Trey Songz, Janelle Monae and several others.
R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn, who's performing with Fantasia and Avant at a "Welcome to Essence" affair at the House of Blues this year, said having BET and Essence's both doing events is a win-win for artists.
"Essence is Essence. BET has the persona of black entertainment at its finest and I think their pursuit to make this an annual event is great. Anything that exposes the arts more, that gives us an outlet to make money and also do what we enjoy doing as artists and to connect with the fans, I'm all for it," said DeVaughn, who's also performed previously at Essence.
Gospel artist Kirk Franklin said both events are "very distinct so that they can stand on their own but both are important to our culture."
"I think it's very good that when something is diversified, where there's not just one event but now there are two events," he added. "What it shows is, it shows growth. It shows that there's a lot of musical and creative growth in the urban community and that makes me very proud."
A telephone message left with a spokeswoman for BET was not returned.
Ebanks said besides the BET Experience, the festival has inherent competition because it's held over the 4th of July holiday weekend.
"We recognize that people can go anywhere for vacation," Ebanks said. "We understand to get folk in New Orleans in July we need to offer an experience that's extraordinary and meaningful. So we're constantly asking, 'How can we make it better?' We have to continue to innovate because competition gives more options to the audience. With more options, though, that means the more we have to think about levels of engagement that drive our market. "
Last year, the festival officially expanded to four-days and continues that format this year. Thursday's opening day, a free, multigenerational Family Reunion Day, will feature entertainment by rappers Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie and others. Attendees also will enjoy cooking competitions and demonstrations from celebrity chefs, games with prizes and an activity area for children and conclude with a fireworks display.
At the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where the festival holds free, daily, issue-focused seminars for the community, rapper Master P and his children, Romeo and Cymphonique, will spearhead a discussion about giving youth a chance to thrive.
On Friday and Saturday, nationally recognized speakers will lead discussions on healthy living, women's rights, education, entrepreneurship, gun violence, the mortgage crisis, immigration and civil rights. Sunday will feature an all-star tribute to gospel greats Tramaine Hawkins and Donnie McClurkin.
"Our dayside programming has never been, I believe, stronger," Ebanks said. "There's a not-to-be missed discussion of gun violence on Saturday with the mayors of New Orleans, Newark and Atlanta. It gives me goose bumps thinking about the challenges they'll give us."
Associated Press writer Stacey Plaisance and AP Entertainment Writer Ryan Pearson contributed to this report.
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