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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Essence Festival marks 20 years with return of Prince and even more performers, programming

NEW ORLEANS - It's been 20 years since Essence magazine first brought its "party with a purpose" to New Orleans and organizers say this year's goal is more, more, more.

Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., said the team began planning the 2014 celebration of black culture and R&B music 14 months ago.

"It was our ambition to make it bigger and better than ever," she told The Associated Press. "This weekend, we're launching with nearly twice the programming, 20 stages of content starting early with our day events and ending early with the night ones."

Prince, who headlined the festival's 10th anniversary, returns 10 years later. Ebanks said they've turned over the Superdome's main stage to him and his friends — including Nile Rodgers and Janelle Monae — for a July Fourth experience.

The festival kicks off Thursday with Family Day in Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River and its new "Now Playing" concert, featuring rapper Nas and R&B heartthrob Trey Songz later in the Superdome. Other performances throughout the weekend include Lionel Richie, Charlie Wilson, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Tamar Braxton, Ledisi, Erykah Badu, Tevin Campbell, Doug E Fresh, Sevyn Streeter, Elle Varner and New Orleans' own August Alsina.

A shooting early Sunday on Bourbon Street that injured 10 people, half of them visitors to New Orleans, has unsettled the city but law enforcement and festival organizers rushed to quell the anxiety.

Police Chief Ronal Serpas said a contingent of 500 police officers will patrol the French Quarter and other tourist-heavy areas throughout the weekend in addition to Louisiana State Police troopers who will help in whatever capacity they're needed.

Essence Festival launched in 1995 as a one-time special event to mark a quarter-century of the magazine. Now, it's an annual, sought-after affair.

The festival has an annual $241 million economic impact and last year drew more than 540,000 people to New Orleans.

National Urban League president Marc H. Morial, who was mayor of New Orleans when Essence began discussions about how they wanted to commemorate the magazine's milestone anniversary, said no one saw this coming.

"It's bigger than they ever could have imagined," he said of then-Essence executives Ed Lewis and Clarence Smith and then-Editor-In-Chief Susan Taylor, who pitched the festival concept. "They were intent on making the event purposeful and not just entertainment. And with George Wein and Quint Davis on board as producers, who had experience with multiple-stage music events, it took off like a rocket ship."

Wein is the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which Davis produces.

Morial said the festival has given the city another signature event in the vein of Mardi Gras, the Bayou Classic and Sugar Bowl. "They've opened the eyes of the hospitality and tourism community of the value of the African-American consumer and that consumer's buying power," he said. "In that first year, those industries were a bit reluctant to embrace the festival. There were several businesses in the Quarter that closed down. Now, that's far from the case."

Morial said the festival can maintain its relevance by continuing to evolve.

Ebanks agreed. "This year, we're more interactive than ever. We want attendees to have a clear take-aways and be able to ask questions and actually get the answers they want and need."

Morial encouraged city leaders to do whatever they must to keep the event in New Orleans. The festival is in the final year of its latest contract.

"Essence and New Orleans go together like coffee and beignets," he said. "I encourage them to renew that contract."

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