20th Essence Music Festival Opens In New Orleans

The event is a must for any true lovers of rhythm and blues music. David Greene talks to Jason King, who hosts NPR's 24/7 R&B and Soul music stream, about the festival which kicked off Thursday night.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. I'm fine with that theme you just heard. It begins this segment every morning. But this morning, how about this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL NIGHT LONG")

LIONEL RICHIE: (Singing) All night long, all night, all night long.

GREENE: That is Lionel Richie, the prince of R&B. OK, no, maybe that title belongs to Prince himself. Well, both of those positions are annual headliners at the largest gathering of R&B fans in the country - the Essence Music Festival. It's in its 20th year, and it kicked off last night in New Orleans.

Jason King hosts NPR's story 24-7 R&B and Soul Music stream. He's also a musician and producer and a professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. He's on the line with us from New Orleans. Jason, good morning to you.

JASON KING, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell us about this festival, for people who don't know it.

KING: Sure. So the Essence Music Festival is held every Fourth of July in New Orleans. And it focuses mostly on music, but there's also empowerment and career seminars. It was started by "Essence" magazine in the mid-1990s. For those who don't know, "Essence" is a long-running, successful magazine aimed primarily at black women.

So the mid-1990s, "Essence" produced a one-off music festival in New Orleans. And it's now become a kind of recurring festival that attracts huge audiences. I mean, we're talking about big numbers - hundreds of thousands of people a year - largely black audiences. And it's all about a kind of celebration of rhythm and blues and black music, in general. And it was even so important that in 2007, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were running for president, they both made strategic stops to the festival.

GREENE: It sounds like quite an event. You know, over the 20 years of the Essence Music Festival, has R&B changed? Has the demographic of its fans changed at all?

KING: I think it has, for sure. I mean, on one hand, R&B doesn't really have the hold on black music that it once did. And that's partly because hip-hop about 35, 40 years ago started to become the dominant youth music. And for a while, the term R&B also became something of a dirty word for certain musicians because the genre, in the last 10 years or so, has not been as commercially popular as used to be, certainly not compared to styles hip-hop or dance styles, like electronic dance music or EDM.

And that's changed as of late. So some listeners will recognize the success of music by the artist Pharrel or Robin Thicke or Daft Punk in the last year. Those have been R&B songs. So R&B is decidedly back. But it's been kind of shrouded in a lot of debates about race and whether white artists have kind of appropriated the style.

So I think what the Essence Festival does is it celebrates kind of traditional, mature R&B. And by that, I mean R&B that's performed largely by black artists who come from the church, who perform structured songs, who pull notes deeply out of their experience to produce a kind of soulfulness. You don't see that as much anymore in R&B, but it's still there.

GREENE: Who are you looking forward to seeing the most?

KING: Well, for sure on my list of exciting artists to see is Prince. I've just been a fan for such a long time. He's such a singular master of his craft.

GREENE: An enduring force in R&B.

KING: Absolutely. Since the late 1970s, he's been a - you know, just a virtuoso singer. This year - it's interesting - he's asked everyone to wear purple to his Friday night concert in honor of the fact that it's the 20th year of the festival.

GREENE: Nice.

KING: And so just today, riding around New Orleans, we saw a women walking with purple hair - purple dyed hair. So I can definitely confirm that Prince's request has been met on - met head on.

GREENE: Are you going that route, too? Are you dying anything purple?

KING: I will not be dying anything purple, but I might wear a purple T-shirt. I could rock that.

GREENE: Fantastic. Well, Jason King will be in a sea of purple at the Essence Music Festival. He joins us from New Orleans. He hosts NPR's R&B and Soul music stream. Jason, thanks a lot.

KING: Thank you.

GREENE: And you can hear music from the artists who have played at Essence going all the way back to 1995 at our website, NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1999")

PRINCE: (Singing) So tonight I'm going to party like it's 1999.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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