From Aaliyah performing at our very first Festival, to jaw-dropping moments from Barack Obama, Beyonce, Oprah and more, there’s never a shortage of moments that make the Festival an experience that’s truly unlike any other.
As we prepare to head back to NOLA for the 2022 ESSENCE Festival of Culture, here’s a look back at 28 ESSENCE Fest moments that definitely deserve a spot in the history books.
1995: Aaliyah Takes The Stage
We were elated to have none other than beloved R&B songstress Aaliyah bless the stage early on in the Festival’s history. At the time, she was basking in the success of her debut album and stealing the hearts of music lovers one smooth bop at a time.
1996: The Fugees The Blaze Stage In Their Prime
The lineup for the 1996 ESSENCE Festival included multi-talented rap trio, The Fugees. The group was riding high on the success of their sophomore album, The Score, and had recently released their hit record, ‘Killing Me Softly,’ which arguably set the stage for the rise of future Hip Hop icon, Lauryn Hill.
2001: Destiny’s Child Makes Their ESSENCE Fest Debut
Just two months after the release of their first album as a trio in 2001, Destiny’s Child lit up the ESSENCE Festival main stage with a flawless performance of their biggest hits, reminding the world that they were indeed, “Survivors.”
(Photo by Douglas Mason)
2003: Patti LaBelle, Gerald Levert, Faith Evans, Usher & More Pay Tribute To Luther Vandross
R&B music legend Luther Vandross was originally scheduled to perform during the 2003 ESSENCE Festival, but when a sudden stroke that landed him in a coma for months derailed his appearance, some of the biggest names in music united to honor him with an all-star musical tribute that was second to none.
2005: “We Miss The Old Kanye…”
Taking to the ESSENCE Festival stage for the very first time with the performance of a lifetime, a 28-year-old Kanye West was just a month shy of releasing his sophomore album, College Dropout, and just days from premiering what would prove to be one of the biggest hits of his career (Gold Digger).
2007: Presidential Candidate Barack Obama Fires Up The ESSENCE Fest Crowd
Just 5 months after officially announcing his historic run for the presidency, then-Senator Barack Obama took the stage at ESSENCE Festival to address a crowd of supporters from the very community that would ultimately playe a huge role in helping him become the country’s first Black president.
2007: Behold, Queen Bey
Although Beyonce had touched the ESSENCE Fest stage a few times before with her Destiny’s Child group members, 2007 marked her first Festival solo performance. Needless to say, it was epic.
2008: A Badgal On The Rise Brings The House Down
When Rihanna hit the ESSENCE Festival stage in 2008, she was in the early pahse of becoming the global superstar she is today. Her single, ‘Take A Bow’ was at the top of the charts and her 2007 album, Good Girl Gone Bad, had solidified her as a young woman whose inspiring rise would only continue.
Skip Bolen/Getty Images
2014: A Music Legend Shows ESSENCE Fest How It’s Done
Less than two years before his untimely passing in 2016, Prince wowed the Superdome audience with one of the most mesmerizing performances in ESSENCE Festival history to celebrate 20 years of ESSENCE Fest with the biggest bang ever.
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
2015: ESSENCE Fest Welcomes Kendrick Lamar
One of the most powerful young voices in music today brought his timely messages and platinum-selling sound to the ESSENCE Festival stage to close out the 2015 Festival weekend as only he could.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images
2015: Aint No Party Like A Missy Elliott Party
When visionary and multi-talented entertainer Missy Elliott takes the stage, it’s a non-stop party from beginning to end and her 2015 debut on the ESSENCE Festival stage was no exception!
2016: Queen Oprah Delivers A Word
In her very first ESSENCE Festival appearance, pioneer talk show host, actress and media mogul Oprah Winfrey had the room on fire as she took the stage to deliver an unforgettable keynote address during the Festival’s daytime programming in the Convention Center.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images for 2016 Essence Festival
2016: The Bad Boy Era Lives On
Diddy, Mase, 112, Total, Faith Evans and the Bad Boy family hit the ESSENCE Festival stage to give the world a preview of their highly-anticipated 20th anniversary reunion tour. Footage from their performance was also included in the 2017 summer blockbuster, Girls Trip.
2016: The Braxton Sisters Pay Tribute To Toni Braxton
20 years after her sophomore album, Secrets, exploded on the music charts with hits including “Un-Break My Heart” and “You’re Makin’ Me High,” Braxton sisters Tamar, Traci, Towanda and Trina honored their sister Toni with a vocally mesmerizing musical tribute.
2016: A Fabulous Diva Demands The Stage
Mariah Carey had the whole audience singing along as she hit the ESSENCE Festival stage for the very first time in 2016 to run through her extensive catalog of hits while dazzling the crowd with several outfit changes.
2016: An All-Star Salute To The Clark Sisters
Legendary Gospel music trio, The Clark Sisters, received a well-deserved musical tribute in 2016 featuring some of the most incredible voices in music including Keke Wyatt, Yolanda Adams, Kierra Clark-Sheard, Ledisi, Kelly Price, Chrisette Michele, Tasha Page-Lockhart and more.
2017: The ‘Girls Trip’ Takeover
The cast of ‘Girls Trip’—which was filmed on location at the 2016 ESSENCE Fest—sent the Festival crowd into a frenzy all weekend long as they took the stage for multiple appearances during the daytime programming and even stayed to party with us at the evening concerts.
2017: Miss Ross, The Boss
The music icon hit the ESSENCE Festival stage for the very first time with a spectacular headlining performance that included several glamorous outfit changes and a string of hits.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
2017: The Return Of Xscape
After more than 20 years apart, one of the most beloved 90s girl groups to ever grace the airwaves reunited for their first live performance together in an epic ESSENCE Festival moment.
2017: Solange Takes Her Seat At The ESSENCE Fest Table
Dynamic entertainer and the gatekeeper of all things Black Girl Magic, Solange hit the ESSENCE Festival stage with a visually and sonically breathtaking performance of music from her Grammy Award-winning album, A Seat At The Table.
2018: A Hometown Favorite Makes Her ESSENCE Fest Debut
NOLA Bounce music queen Big Freedia hit the stage for her first-ever ESSENCE Festival performance that had the city turned up to the max.
2018: Janet Pushes Through
Revealing during the show that she’d contemplated cancelling her headlining performance at the Festival, the entertainment icon pushed through one of the most difficult moments of her life to give the ESSENCE Fest audience a show they’ll never forget. She also took a pause during the show to speak on her father’s sudden passing for the very first time.
2018: Getting Real About Criminal Justice Reform And The Black Community
Influential Hip Hop artists Remy Ma and Meek Mill shared the stage for the first time ever to share their personal experiences during a candid conversation with veteran journalist Lester Holt about the dire need for criminal justice reform.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images
2018: Fantasia’s Heartwarming Surprise
No stranger to lighting up the ESSENCE Festival stage anytime she touches it, we had a feeling R&B powerhouse songstress Fantasia had something up her sleeve. But when her brother joined her on stage after she shared the story of an accident that nearly claimed his life earlier in the year, she had the whole audience in tears.
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
2018: Black Women Mayors Elevate Their Voices
Months before one of the most crucial mid-term elections of our time in a year that saw an unprecedented number of Black women across the country stepping into the political space, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms,
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and Gary Indiana Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson joined forces for an empowering conversation at the Convention Center.
2019: SoSo Def Takes Over The Superdome
Jermaine Dupri had the entire Superdome on their feet from start to finish when he brought a star-studded SoSo Def reunion to the stage.
2019: The Forever First Lady
Forever First Lady Michelle Obama had all eyes on her when she graced the Festival Superdome stage for the very first time in 2019.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
2019: Meet The Candidates
Several of the many 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates brought their A-game to the Festival’s Wealth & Power stage in 2019 for the first time ever, including now-Vice President, Kamala Harris.