Prince Leads an All-Star Lineup at the Essence Music Festival 

The Purple One, along with Mary J. Blige, the Roots and Nas, will take the stage in New Orleans at one of black music’s most important festivals.

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Prince performs onstage at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, on June 30, 2011.

BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

It seems fitting that the Essence Festival—which has hosted and broken some of the biggest names in black music for the past 20 years—would have the man who at one point was so big that he used only a symbol as his moniker to headline the 20th-anniversary installment of the three-day musical free-for-all.

The Purple One, aka Purple Majesty, aka that symbol that looks like a cross made from a downward pointing arrow and a curvy trumpet, aka Prince, is headlining the 20th anniversary of the musical extension of the magazine that is arguably considered the African-American woman’s bible.

Known locally as the Essence Fest and begun in 1995, the music festival was originally slated to be a one-time event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the literary component.

Not only has the festival become a musical juggernaut, but after 20 years of successfully cranking out some of the best acts, it’s safe to say that the Essence Festival is also a black-music mainstay.

Below are the can’t-miss shows and the little-known artists poised to become breakout stars:

Thursday, July 3

Big Fish: The main stage will play host to Nas (10:50 p.m.), who forever changed the hip-hop landscape after he spit his first verse on Main Source’s 1991 classic Live at the Barbecue.” Some 20 years later, the Queens, N.Y.-born MC still owns the game.  

Middle Fish: Singer-turned-reality-TV-villain-turned-singer K. Michelle will also grace the main stage (8:45 p.m.) to belt out her pro-women ballads “V.S.O.P” and “Can’t Raise a Man.”

Little Fish: Jesse Boykins III has crazy hair and makes what he calls “world soul.” Having dropped a series of singles, the Chicago-born artist finally released Love Apparatus at the end of April. Boykins’ music will creep into your soul and his friends are cooler than yours.

Friday, July 4

The King: Prince! That’s it. Prince. The show starts at 10:30 p.m. This is the biggest show in the history of shows until Prince decides to do another show. Prince could sit onstage wearing a microphone headset and eating a box of Froot Loops for two hours and it would still be better than most of the shows you have seen in the past two years.

The Princess: Janelle Monáe. It is safe to say that she has gone to and graduated from the school of Prince. Having repurposed a bit of the Prince dramatics in her flair for delivery, punched up with her own bit of Kanas City funk, the two-time Grammy Award nominee leaves it all on the stage.

The Heir to the Throne: Alice Smith.

Saturday, July 5

The Scoop: Park in front of the main stage and don’t move, and that’s because New Orleans native Ledisi performs at 7:45 p.m., followed by the Roots, who perform at 8:50 p.m., followed by Jill Scott at 10:10 p.m. And if you still have any energy left, Mary J. Blige doesn’t even begin her set until 11:30 p.m. You have been warned.

From the “Wait, These Acts Still Perform” File: 112 (9:50 p.m.), Doug E. Fresh (9 p.m.) and Tevin Campbell (8:20 p.m.), all performing in the Superlounge.

From the “Most Likely to Kill the Stage and You Don’t Know Who He Is” File: Daley

Sunday, July 6

The Father: Lionel Richie. Fresh off his BET Lifetime Achievement Award (which completely misspelled his name), Richie looks to set the stage ablaze, and hopefully for Chris Rock, he does sing “Zoom” (11 p.m., main stage).

The Sun: Erykah Badu, 7:50 p.m. Main stage. ’Nuff said.

The Holy Spirit: Raheem DeVaughn. The three-time Grammy-nominated singer throws himself into his performances and has never lost the hustle that has made him one of the hardest-working singers in the business. In the past nine years, DeVaughn has released some 15 mixtapes. Don't miss this show (9:50 p.m., Superlounge).

The “I Didn’t Know You Still Go to This Church”: Day 26 (7:20 p.m., Superlounge). 

Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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