Mary J. Blige x Pepsi’s “Strength of a Woman” festival recap (Part seven)
There is something inherently magical about spaces authentically engineered for Black people in America to enjoy and embrace the culture that binds them together. It’s an impalpable force that energizes and invigorates, and over Mother’s Day weekend, Mary J. Blige and Pepsi’s “Strength of A Woman Festival & Summit” struck oil in the art of cultivating hybrid spaces where Black women are seen, celebrated, educated, and entertained.
Staged across a three-day and star-studded itinerary in Atlanta, the inaugural event coincided with Mary J. Blige’s deluxe reissue of her most recent Good Morning Gorgeous album. Marked as MJB’s 19th Top 10 album, the late career opus boasts a refreshed message of both personal and collective triumph. It was a message also prominently woven into the fabric of Strength of A Woman.
“The idea for the festival came to us after early listening sessions of my latest album with my family and friends and women in the industry,” said Mary in a press release. “Each time, the people in the room would share a story, oftentimes of heartbreak or pain, but they always ended with joy and love and how their girlfriends or mom or sister helped them find their voice and strength. We felt like after two years of being inside and having to endure so much, that this was the type of experience that people, especially women, deserved.”
Friday night — just a day after the city of Atlanta declared May 5th to be Mary J. Blige day — things kicked off with a comedy night at Buckhead Theatre and a concert highlighting a lineup of rising women across the way at the city’s Tabernacle venue. Among them were names like Inayah, Omerettà The Great, Rubi Rose, Emotional Oranges, Sevyn Streeter, and Kiana Lede. While Mary J Blige’s presence was largely limited to her time as spectator, the lineup represented the first half of a vignette of bridges built between generations through song as MJB and her contemporaries would round things out with an explosive festival show the following night.
Just ahead of the marquee event, however, women across the city had the chance to attend the Summit at Atlanta’s The Gathering Spot (TGS) to listen to a lineup of speakers that included Angie Martinez, Naturi Naughton, Tamron Hall, Coco Jones, Pinky Cole of Slutty Vegan, and celebrity chef Carla Hall who helped amplify the Pepsi Dig In program, which serves to support black restauranteurs in Atlanta and beyond.
Other initiatives heralded by Pepsi during the weekend included the Pepsi Music Lab, which began as a program designed to lend a valuable assist to independent hip hop artists. This year, the program launched a competition that awarded the winner with a song produced by Pi’erre Bourne. The recipient, StarChild Kayla, also earned a brief moment onstage the night before back at the Tabernacle to preview the track that she cooked up with the producer.
Back at TGS, artists across all mediums were further gifted with jewels that could benefit their careers at any stage. Chats included the Beyond The Lense television and film panel featuring Tasha Smith and Dionne Harmon as well as the NFTs For Dummies panel, which featured artists Amber Vittoria and Shaylin Wallace who also took part in designing two out of four total Pepsi NFTs exclusive to the Strength Of A Woman experience.
Considering TGS’s role as a pioneering social club made with black professionals in mind, the significance of the setting was no minor detail.
“Our work in communities is anchored in our goal to utilize our brand platform as an arbiter of positive change and progress,” said Chauncey Hamlett, Chief Marketing Officer, South Division – Pepsi. “Whether it’s our work with local restauranteurs, aspiring entrepreneurs or a legendary talent like Mary J. Blige, we want to celebrate success at the local level while creating opportunities to pay it forward, which is what we hope fans takeaway throughout the festival.”
Hours later, the weekend would culminate inside the State Farm Arena just minutes away as an MJB-curated lineup kept up with the sold-out crowd. The momentum was maintained by host Kenny Burns, who made a solid case for retaining his role as a recurring master of ceremonies when it comes to Atlanta’s pre-eminent get-togethers.
Things were kicked off with another appearance from Omerettà The Great who basked in the love from her hometown as she ran through her most popular cuts like “Do Too Much” and the divisive and catchy “Sorry Not Sorry.”
She was soon followed Baby Tate, who enjoyed a surge in success with last year’s “I Am” anthem. That sonic bridge mentioned before made another appearance when Tate invited her mother Dionne Farris (yes, that Dionne Farris) onstage for a nostalgic and soulful run of her 1997 “Hopeless” track.
Clad in a pink outfit, Queen Naija was next up to represent for the newest generation of R&B stars, engaging the crowd in a sing-along with cuts like “Pack Lite,”” “Bitter,” and her most recent “Hate Our Love.”
Things would transition with a very appropriate appearance from the City Girls. All the audience needed to hear was a valiant “B**** don’t make me put my wig in a rubber band” come through the microphone to tap in with the most unapologetic version of themselves as the Miami-bred duo piped up via fiery hits like “Act Up,” “I’ll Take Your Man,” and “Twerkulator.”
They were followed by Xscape whose presence sent the arena into a frenzy as the Atlanta mainstays cut through a set that included “Just Kickin It,” “Who Can I Run To?” and “Understanding” while the likes of Jermaine Dupri, who produced much of the quartet’s catalog, looked on from backstage.
Chaka Khan came through with a set that served as testament to her iconic clutch throughout the decades. The crowd was treated to selections that included “Tell Me Something Good,” “Ain’t Nobody” and “What Cha Gonna Do For Me.” In the spirit of the Strength Of A Woman Festival, however, it would not have been a complete set without a run of “I’m Every Woman” with a feature appearance from the crowd of course.
At last, the stage was primed for the weekend’s headliner to begin her performance.
Draped in a monochromatic orange outfit with her essential thigh highs to match, MJB invited the crowd to join her as she belted out “I Can Love You” before completing the first part of her set with “Real Love,” “The One,” and “You Remind Me.”
Returning in an all-pink look, she brought Method Man in tow for a surprise rendition of the duo’s “All I Need.” The cameos of the night continued with a two-track performance from Ella Mai with her quintessential “Boo’d Up” and ” her latest “DFMU” before Mary invited Summer Walker to perform an acoustic and solo version of her “Unloyal” cut. Things were topped off with an appearance from Usher who literally glided to the stage in a pastel get up as the superstar delivered on a live cut of “Bad Girl.”
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As for Mary J. Blige, the set wasn’t finished until fans were gifted with performances of staples like “Just Fine,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Family Affair” and new classics like “Good Morning Gorgeous.”
The show’s end would find itself deep into the early morning hours before MJB would head over to City Winery for a Gospel Brunch featuring Kierra Sheard and Le’Andria Johnson and for those who missed the festivities this go around, Ms. Blige made a solid promise that she’d be keeping the festival on her calendar.
“The festival is only going to be in ATL,” she told the crowd at State Farm Arena. “I’m going to be here every Mother’s Day.”
Making space is no fresh concept. But the ways in which its accomplished continue to evolve. This past Mother’s Day weekend, Mary J. Blige and Pepsi put their latest methods to the test and, quite obviously, did not disappoint.