Essence Fest Returns to Big Easy

The star-studded Essence Music Festival starts today at its home in New Orleans, after relocating because of Hurricane Katrina. Essence entertainment editor Cori Murray says attendees can expect appearances from Beyonce, Mary J. Blige and White House hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Beyonce, Ludacris and Barack Obama. They're just a few of the big names hitting the big easy this weekend. That's right. The Essence Music Festival is back in New Orleans. Last year's event was relocated to Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

With us to talk about the festival's homecoming is Essence entertainment editor Cori Murray. Cori, welcome to the show.

Ms. CORI MURRAY (Entertainment Editor, Essence): Hello, thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So, how important is this homecoming, especially after everything that the city has been through?

Ms. MURRAY: Well, this homecoming is really close to our hearts this year because New Orleans has been our home away from home for almost - a little over 10 years - and we've been doing the Essence Festival here every year except for last year. So we just knew that coming back would be what the city really needed. And we needed it for us to, you know, just reconnect with the city. So it's been very special for us.

CHIDEYA: So you have an amazing line-up. Let's just hear a couple of examples. You have some old-school favorites who come back again and again, like Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly.

Ms. MURRAY: And also Mary J. Blige who has been to the festival numerous times. I can't - I can count for about six times she's been to the festival, so she is returning. Lionel Richie is returning. Steve Harvey has also been incredible over the years. We have a number of great people. But I personally am looking forward to Robin Thicke and Beyonce.

CHIDEYA: Beyonce is huge.

Ms. MURRAY: Yes, she's huge.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. There's no question. And, of course, Barack Obama, that's part of the fact that your festival is more than just music. It is really a chance. It's - I've heard it described now. You have to understand that I'm one of these jealous people. I'm not a hater, but I'm one of these jealous people who have never been. I've never had my schedule work out.

Ms. MURRAY: Oh, God. Okay.

CHIDEYA: And so we're going to have to remedy that tragedy. But…

Ms. MURRAY: Oh, thank you. You have to come.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. So I've heard that it's like a family reunion style event where everybody runs into everybody. And then you have people like presidential candidates coming down. Tell me why you think Barack Obama is going to make this a visit.

Ms. MURRAY: I think Barack, I mean, he's been such a - he's hot on the campaign trail, you know, trying to get the nation to know that he's serious, that he can be the next president, that he is the viable candidate. And I think he's coming here to speak directly to black women.

I mean, the great thing about the festival is, you know, it's pretty much a great full of audience. I mean, families are here. So I think he just wanted to speak to us directly.

Hillary Clinton is also - she'll be here tomorrow during the seminars. I think both of them just wanted to let, you know, black Americans know as much as they can that, hey, they're here for us. And they want to speak to us directly. And I think coming here today at Essence Music Festival was a great place to start that conversation.

CHIDEYA: So, you've also teamed up with the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools of New Orleans? Tell me about that partnership.

Ms. MURRAY: Well, you know, under the direction of Susan L. Taylor, our editorial director, she has been very great in inspiring us to really, you know, do that community component with New Orleans, with the festival. So we've partnered with the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools. And the freedom schools is an active school enrichment program that really connects students and parents with the resources in their community, helps generate more positive attitudes towards learning, and pair students, especially disadvantaged students up with mentors because, you know, there's some several pieces of research that confirm that mentoring can really boost up a child's leadership skills and just actually just make them want to learn more and make it fun.

CHIDEYA: So kids aren't the only ones that can be enriched. You have these empowerment seminars. Tell me more about that.

Ms. MURRAY: The empowerment seminars, I mean, it's something for everyone. I mean, you know, we have a real estate seminar going on. We have, you know, how to, you know, heal pain. There's one being led by Terri Williams about depression. Again, Susan Taylor, we also have Hillary Clinton. We have Monique speaking. I mean, just different. I mean, anything that could be possibly going on in your life. We have something here to help you either fix it or just confirm that you're on the right track, or to give you some guidance in how to make something work better for you.

You know, I find that the empowerment seminars are really the true gems of Essence Music Festival. I mean, the concerts are great but this is what's - the empowerment seminar is what's really special because, you know, you get that spirit, that spirituality component, that's so inert.

CHIDEYA: Sounds like things are popping off in the background. Before I let you go, Barack Obama speaking tonight at the Superdome. The Superdome was an emblem of how far the city had fallen, you guys had to move your festival out of New Orleans. How does it feel to be back and how was the city shaping up?

Ms. MURRAY: You know, a couple - I have my cousin here, you know, a couple of colleagues from work, and we personally oh, it's oh, this is going to be (unintelligible), but you know what? You don't have that feeling here because everyone is here just to have a good time and I think everyone's coming back to support New Orleans so all of that we - kind of that apprehension that we felt has not come back. I mean, we're on Bourbon Street last night. I think we're all here just to support. I think is that, you know, it's such a terrible thing that happened but I think we're all here committed to make sure that New Orleans gets back to where it was before and even better.

CHIDEYA: Well, Cori, thank you so much.

Ms. MURRAY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Cori Murray is an entertainment editor for Essence magazine and we've been talking with her about the 13th Annual Essence Music Festival starting today in New Orleans.

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