NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Actor and comedian Steve Harvey hosted a barbecue contest where he “ribbed” contestants before an audience, while on a nearby stage dance party hit-maker Cupid had hundreds on their feet as he sang “Do Ya Thang” and “Cupid Shuffle.”

It was all part of the opening day of the Essence Festival, which embraced the July 4th holiday with free live music and family-style barbecue on the bank of the Mississippi River. It was the first time the festival hosted an outdoor event geared for families with stages set up along the riverfront and free performances by Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, the Stooges Brass Band and others.

“This is wonderful, and I hope they do it every year,” said Michelle Leonard, bobbing to Cupid’s music as she sipped a tall lemonade under a sunny sky with welcoming breezes cutting through the heat.

Essence is one of the premier 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.

The festival runs through Sunday with a lineup of nearly 50 acts, including Beyonce, Jill Scott, Maxwell, New Edition, Charlie Wilson, Keyshia Cole, LL Cool J and Brandy.

Friday through Sunday, concerts will be held at the Superdome while empowerment seminars on health, beauty, careers, education and relationships are held at the nearby convention center.

Music fans came ready to party. With the music kicking off before noon, many arrived early, sporting hats and sunglasses and wielding folding chairs.

“This is a day for me to relax, take everything in and be with my friends and sisters,” said Eunice Davis of Marrero, La.

Kim Clark of Jackson, Miss., drove to New Orleans with her two daughters, ages 22 and 17, to take in the opening day, touted by organizers as a “family reunion day” with music, barbecue and fireworks.

“One of my daughters is in college. The other is a senior in high school, at that age where she ignores her mom,” Clark said with a laugh. “This was such a good opportunity for us to do something together. We’re thrilled to be here.”

Avery(asterisk)Sunshine, whose soulful voice is often compared to Scott, Ledisi and other neo-soul standouts, said she’s bringing her whole family to New Orleans to see her performance on Saturday in the Superdome. That includes her 13-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, her 75-year-old mother and a van-load of other relatives and friends.

“This is a big deal,” said the 38-year-old artist, whose release “Ugly Side of Me” from her self-titled 2010 debut album has gained a strong following and heavy radio play.

“For me, this kind of invitation to perform means someone is paying attention to what I’m doing. For me, I’m honored to have this opportunity.”

Avery(asterisk)Sunshine, whose real name is Denise White, said she’s never attended Essence in the 19 years it’s been in existence but is looking forward to the experience. In fact, she said she’s planning to arrive early and stay an extra day to take in all she can.

“I’m nervous and excited at the same time,” she said of her pending performance.
“But honestly,” she said laughing, “I’m even more nervous about what I’m going to wear.”

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.

“This is the first day of our 19th experience,” said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc. “And in our 19th year, we’re more influential than ever from pop culture to politics.”

Essence magazine’s managing editor, Vanessa Bush, said the weekend was full of activities for both men and women, young and old.

“For the past 43 years, Essence has inspired and empowered women and men,” she said. “I’m so proud to be bringing the pages of Essence to the stage here in New Orleans.”
Associated Press Writer Chevel Johnson contributed to this report.

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Stacey Plaisance

Associated Press