Essence 'youth day' kicks off in New Orleans

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FILE - This Feb. 17, 2012 file photo shows actress-singer Vanessa Williams arriving at the 43rd NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles. On Friday, July 6, Williams will talk about her relationship with her mom, Helen, during one of a series of panel discussions at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center about family, love and relationships during the Essence Music Festival running through Sunday in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, file)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Essence Music Festival kicked off Thursday with events geared for the young.

Organizers planned to hold talks at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on crime, education and other issues affecting today's youth as a prelude to teen musical acts scheduled to hit the Superdome stage later in the evening.

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.

As in years past, the festival tackles themes of importance to African Americans, such as education and the upcoming presidential election. But above all, Essence is a celebration of music.

Opening day was to be all about recognizing newcomers to the music scene, including the Disney Channel's Coco Jones, rapper Diggy Simmons, the OMG Girlz, Roshon Fegan, Katlyn Nichol, Square Off and New Orleans' own The Roots of Music.

Thursday marks the first of four nights of music that will include performances throughout the weekend by veteran artists Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Ledisi, Charlie Wilson, 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 perform at the festival. 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.

Green's next project is set for release in September, and the first single from that album will hit the airwaves two weeks after the festival.

Green said she had no plans to give fans an early preview but would sing her current single, "Still Here," a collaboration with Brian Culbertson.

"I don't want to bombard fans with songs they've never heard," she said. "So I'll play their favorites for them."

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 featured an interview with President Barack Obama, and the festival will expand on issues surrounding the upcoming presidential 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."