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EMF 2017 [Day 1]: Diana Ross and John Legend Make It About the Music

The annual festival kicks off in New Orleans.

Eliot Lee Hazel

This year’s Essence Music Festival kicked off on Friday night (June 30) at the Mercedes-Benz SuperDome in New Orleans. With four SuperLounges upstairs and Diana Ross closing out the main stage, fans from all over the country had a plethora of options. “Girl, I don’t even know if I wanna stay downstairs for the main stage all night,” one young woman was overheard saying to her friend. “I’m tryna be in and out of those lounges upstairs. I told you, you shoulda wore flats.”

They were headed to the Ford SuperLounge for Ro James and then the Essence Lounge for PJ Morton but India.Arie was in the middle of captivating the crowd downstairs on the main stage. The singer/songwriter strummed her acoustic guitar midstage, with a hint of a smile spreading across her face. “‘Cause he is the truth,” she sang. “‘Cause he is so real...” Her hoop earrings swayed as she serenaded. “Her voice...,” one woman sighed within earshot. When India sang “I Am Light” and “Brown Skin,” the Dome seemed to fall completely silent except for the echo of her voice bounced across the walls of the stadium.

The focus was on the music tonight. It started off that way with Rhonda Ross (Diana Ross’ daughter) opening the main stage and the theme extended throughout the night with Kelly Price and Doug E. Fresh revisiting their past upstairs in the SuperLounges.

Price spoke on the theory: “Faith by hearing,” it was something she realized in working with Ronald Isley, years before. She wanted her music to stand on its own but she was repeatedly told that she was “too fat” to make it. “You know, how you can only hear that you’re ugly but so many times before you start believing it?” she asked a full room of supporters. The crowd hooted in response. “This is Friday night,” one woman said to her two companions. “Friday. Night. And she trying to take us to church.” Price moved through joints that many had no idea she was a part of. Music that she was hired to sing but at the time, no one knew what she looked like because of her size. From “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” to R. Kelly’s “Home Alone” and on to her own feature on Whitney Houston’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” “There aren’t many people left who don’t wanna drop it like it’s hot,” Price said, grinning in the spotlight. “[People] who just wanna stand flat-footed and sing a song.”

John Legend kept the light on talent ten minutes after Price started her set, downstairs on the main stage. Three women dressed in all black hypnotized festival attendees, perfectly harmonized, strong singing before Legend even hit the stage, starting with “Used to Love U” and “Best You Ever Had” before moving into a few cuts from his latest album Darkness and Light. “Sometimes, we get so addicted to lights” he starts. “We forget about love. Let’s get back to love tonight Essence...” Snarky Twitter personality notwithstanding (and probably more of a credit to his equally snarky, quick-witted wife), Legend is about the work. No gimmicks. Just determination and vocals onstage. ”Let them talk about us...,” he sang the lyrics to “Overload”, “Let them talk too much while we rule the world from our bed...”

Back upstairs, Doug E. Fresh was hosting his own high school reunion with a few new friends. “How many of you remember the foundation of rap music?,” he inquired. “How many of y’all were in high school in ‘85 through ‘87?” The crowd hollered affirmation. “So y’all gotta be...,” he quipped. “Should I say it? 40 or better.” And honestly, although the OGs were in attendance for Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew at the Essence SuperLounge, quite a few young people were there as well and brought their friends along to get a little hip-hop in on a Friday night. It was a packed room and the energy only soared as he working his way through his set which included “All the Way to Heaven” and “Keep It Going.”

Across the way, at the Coca Cola SuperLounge, RCA artist Goldlink charmed the ladies from stage -- he’s self-aware too and was certain to wear a “I Met God and She’s Black” t-shirt. The room filled with women between their mid-20s to mid-30s, real followers who seemed to know every lyric to “Crew.” “Don’t act like I’m your man... You just a fan,” they screamed bouncing along in unison. At the start of his mainstream journey, the DMV rapper appears to already have it all under control -- from the lyrics in live settings to his demeanor onstage.

Downstairs, the main stage was set for an artist who has been holding her own for half a century easily. Her live band sounded off with a go-go drum warm up then Miss Diana Ross glided across the stage in a sequined green two-piece gown and an oversized chiffon shrug. The crowd stood at once, belting out lyrics to everything from “I’m Coming Out,” and “My World Is Empty“ to “The Boss” and “Touch Me In the Morning.” With a voice just as enduring as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ross hasn’t missed a step. At a certain point while watching her -- either before or after the costume change with the second being just as glamorous as the first -- one realizes that they’re watching a true legend at work. A veteran who’s always made it about the music and the performance, Diana Ross was the perfect choice to close out the first night of the 2017 Essence Music Festival.

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