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Essence Fest 2016: 8 must-see acts

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D Dipasupil/Getty Images; Araya Diaz/Getty Images; Gary Gershoff/Getty Images; Earl Gibson III/Getty Images for ESSENCE

Twenty-two years into its run, the Essence Festival has grown into one of the country’s largest cultural events, with a crop of performers and speakers that consistently draw record crowds (sometimes exceeding 550,000 concertgoers) to the New Orleans-based festivities.

This year, talent like Mariah Carey, Tyra Banks, Misty Copeland, Iyanla Vanzant, and Kendrick Lamar are just a few of the superstar voices that will take the Essence Fest stage for a series of inspirational talks, speeches, musical performances, and more. With a roster of 30 contemporary R&B, hip-hop, and pop artists, including Andra Day, Maxwell, Dej Loaf, Faith Evans, MC Lyte, Common, Tyrese, Jeremih, and Puff Daddy & The Family, the acts performing at this year’s event are sure to turn up the Big Easy with big beats.

Check out a list of must-see performers and speakers hitting Essence Fest 2016, below.

MARIAH CAREY – Performer

Her voice has sold 200 million albums worldwide and rocketed 18 singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and now Mariah Carey is bringing her five-octave vocal range to the main stage at the 2016 Essence Festival. Queen Mimi will take the Essence Fest stage primed and ready, having recently wrapped her 26-date Sweet Sweet Fantasy Tour across Europe and Africa. After her performance at Essence Fest, Carey will resume her Number 1’s Las Vegas residency show at Caesar’s Palace on June 7.

AL SHARPTON – Speaker (free event)

Reverend Al Sharpton is one of the most recognizable civil rights leaders in the world, whom President Barack Obama referred to as “the voice of a voiceless and a champion for the downtrodden.” In 1991, he founded a non-profit civil rights organization, the National Action Network, which includes over 100 chapters around the country. In the recent past, Sharpton has led protests against George Zimmerman and the police officers involved in the death of Eric Garner. He also hosts his own radio show, Keepin’ It Real with Al Sharpton, in addition to juggling various appearances on shows like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

KENDRICK LAMAR – Performer

Fresh from a successful No. 1 collaboration with Taylor Swift in 2015, a Platinum-certified album of his own, and five Grammy wins, few artists have had a year as good as Kendrick Lamar’s. While he’ll almost certainly be performing tracks from his To Pimp a Butterfly set, Lamar recently dropped a compilation of unfinished demos, untitled unmastered., which debuted atop the Billboard 200 with 142,000 pure album sales in March. While untitled unmastered. is largely a solo LP, To Pimp a Butterfly features collaborations with Snoop Dogg, Bilal, and George Clinton, so Lamar’s Essence Fest 2016 performance could feature some high profile surprise appearances.

TYRA BANKS – Speaker (free event)

Tyra Banks is a model and actress (let’s be real: Life-Size is still an excellent guilty pleasure), but her later career has proven she’s capable of working more than a camera. Banks has built a global brand that includes starring in and producing several TV series (America’s Next Top Model, FabLife, The Tyra Banks Show), a worldwide cosmetics brand (Tyra Beauty), and philanthropic efforts (her TZONE Foundation aims to foster self confidence in young girls). In 2012, Banks took a step back from her TV gigs and attended Harvard Business School, where she received a certificate for completing the Owner/President Management course. Banks’ Essence Fest talk is bound to offer insight into one of the most diverse entrepreneurial careers in entertainment today.

CIARA – Performer

Six studio albums and eight top 10 Billboard Hot 100 singles later, Ciara’s 12-year career in music has produced massive hits like “Goodies” and “Promise.” After taking a three-year break from music between her Basic Instinct (2010) and Ciara (2013) LPs, the singer recently returned with 2015’s Jackie, an eclectic mix of dance, R&B, and pop tracks that featured her first Platinum-certified single (“I Bet”) since 2006. Ciara recently canceled several dates on her 2015 summer tour so she could focus on new music, so her 2016 Essence Fest set could feature a few new tunes in addition to time-tested classics like “1,2 Step” and “Like a Boy.”

IYANLA VANZANT – Speaker

Having grown up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York, Iyanla Vanzant transcended her humble beginnings with a brand of wit and determination that eventually landed her a spot on the New York Times’ best-selling authors list and a working relationship with Oprah Winfrey, whose OWN Network has aired the inspirational speaker’s self-help reality series, Iyanla: Fix My Life, since 2012. Things often get heated on Vanzant’s show (see the video below), and she is never one to shy away from wearing her own emotions on her sleeve as she navigates difficult subjects, at one time even threatening to leave her own outdoor set so she could “go in the bush and weep.” Vanzant is sure to bring her signature personality and enthusiasm for helping others to the stage at the 2016 Essence Fest.

LION BABE – Performer

You might not be familiar with the sounds of Lion Babe, an up-and-coming musical duo from New York City, but you won’t soon forget their live performance at the 2016 Essence Fest. Jillian Hervey, daughter of singer and actress Vanessa L. Williams, provides sultry lead vocals, while Lucas Goodman produces pulsing beats that combine the best of contemporary R&B with grooveable pop and electronic sounds. The eclectic pair was previously featured on Disclosure’s “Hourglass” off their 2015 album Caracal ahead of their own debut studio set, Begin, which dropped in February.

MISTY COPELAND – Speaker

Upon her promotion to principal dancer, Misty Copeland became the first black woman to attain the title in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre. After joining the Corps de Ballet in 2001, she performed as an American Ballet Theatre solo dancer from 2007-2015, and has since appeared in numerous nationally-publicized campaigns for major brands like Under Armour, Dr. Pepper, and T-Mobile. In 2015, TIME named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world; that same year, she starred in a documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale, which examined her rise to prominence in a predominantly-white industry, and she heads into Essence Fest 2016 as a must-see speaker as part of the Empowerment Stages series.

Essence Fest runs from June 30 – July 3 in New Orleans, Louisiana. For festival details and information on how to buy tickets, head over to the Essence website.

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