Essence Music Festival 2011: What to Expect, What to See and More

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The Essence Music Festival is the premiere mainstream R&B festival -- but its ambitious scope encompasses a whole lot more. The main events are evening concerts with more than 40 household-name acts in R&B, urban contemporary, soul, hip hop and jazz, including mainstage shows stacked with headliners like Usher and Kanye West. Yet the festival, sponsored by Essence Magazine, runs on a undercurrent of appreciation and empowerment of African American culture, offering daytime seminars and speakers like Steve Harvey and Soledad O'Brien. It's an upper-scale festival experience to match the recent $85 million renovations on the Louisiana Superdome, which are being finished this week just in time to host the shindig. (The venue has undergone a reported $336 million in reno since Hurricane Katrina.) As if you needed another reason to get thee to the Big Easy.

Essence Music Festival July 1-3 New Orleans, Louisiana

Great Timing: According to Priceline.com, New Orleans is the second-most-popular destination for celebrating the Fourth of July 2011 -- that's up from No. 26 last year. Now that travelers are no longer squeamish about ordering its oysters à la oil spill, the festival-loving city will be buzzing this weekend with crowds of revelers.

Distance from St. Louis: 680 miles -- roughly 10 hours and 50 minutes

Cost: Ticket prices range from $50 per night for terrace seats to $1,000 per night for the "Platinum VIP Experience." Each night is treated as its own mega-concert, and you buy your ticket per night, so you won't be locked in to one price level for the whole weekend. You could splurge one night, or skip one night of the festival altogether, in case you've gotten lost on Bourbon Street.

Know This: El DeBarge will reemerge, playing his first show since his 2010 comeback album and subsequent return to rehab earlier this year.

Lodging: Getting a room will be insanity, but hotels are your best option as you'll want to be close to the action. Expect prices to be jacked sky-high, but it may help to book through the festival website, as some hotels are designated "Essence Festival Hotels" and offer deals and packages.

Key Acts: Friday night features an all-star lineup of Boyz II Men, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and Charlie Wilson, capping off with Usher smooth-sailing around the stage. (No word on whether the Biebz will make an appearance.) Fantasia's set would be the best time to duck out and catch Dwele in the "Neo Soul Superlounge." And you have to skip half of Hudson's set to see legend Mavis Staples at the Superlounge "Old School" stage. On Sunday night, it's all about the mainstage headliners again: Kem, Trey Songz, New Edition and Mary J Blige -- a mix of classics and currents, and Ms. Blige, who's both.

Will Soledad Sing? The days of the festival will be filled with speakers and seminars with positive messages about the self, soul and community. Chaka Khan, for example, will give a talk titled "Transforming Your Community Starts With You." For something totally different, NeNe Leakes and other "Real Housewives" will conduct their own panel on...well, we're not sure, but it will be hard to look away.

Free Stuff: The Convention Center will be transformed into the Essence Marketplace, packed with booths featuring African American artists, writers, craftsmen, culinary artists and businesspeople. You may also experience zydeco bands, impromptu dance parties and celebrity signing and sightings while wandering around the center.

Pack: Your dancing shoes. Better throw in your drinking shoes as well.

St. Louis Connection: Much like St. Louis' celebrations, our downriver sister city shoots up the night with fireworks from barges on the Mississippi. On Sunday night the Superlounge features old-school acts we've seen come through town recently, including MC Lyte, Doug E. Fresh and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.

Worth it? Essence differs from many other festivals in that it doesn't emphasize variety or quantity of acts, but brings out the marquee-name professionals instead. The tickets aren't cheap, but the city of New Orleans alone may be worth the long drive. With all the extra excitement and positive vibes surrounding this major festival and major holiday, this is one of the better excuses to head to the Big Easy.

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