NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Newly engaged queen of soul Aretha Franklin is headlining this summer's Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, and its other top performers include Mary J. Blige, Fantasia, Stephanie Mills, Charlie Wilson and Keyshia Cole.
The event, scheduled for July 6-8, is billed as one of the largest gatherings of black artists in the country. As in years past, musical performances will be held at the Superdome while seminars with influential speakers, artists and authors will take place at the city's convention center.
"When you think about the opportunity to be there and experience Miss Aretha Franklin, performing for tens of thousands of her most avid fans, I just get chills," Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., said Wednesday. "To have Mary J. Blige return, she just owns that house like few others can. It will be exciting to see what she brings to the festival this year with her new music out. I'm expecting another memorable performance. Then there's fan favorite Fantasia, who brings excitement, energy and passion to every show and, of course, Charlie Wilson, who is truly a showstopper."
Also performing are New Orleans-born Ledisi, SWV, Dru Hill, Raheem DeVaughn, Estelle, Vivian Green, Kindred the Family Soul, Luke James, Eric Roberson, The Stylistics and Big Sam's Funky Nation, among others.
"And that is just the first wave," Ebanks said, noting that fans can expect another announcement, possibly next month, of more artists expected to perform at the 18th annual event.
Steve Harvey, the actor, comedian and best-selling author of the relationship advice book, "Think Like a Man," will be one of the festival's highlighted speakers. Others include the Rev. Al Sharpton, Democratic U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California and author Steve Perry.
Waters has been under investigation into whether she tried to aid a troubled bank where her husband owned stock. Ebanks said Waters is one of the nation's most outspoken political leaders and speaks to issues that affect the African American community.
"She launched a jobs initiative and conducted town hall meetings in Detroit to get an understanding on the very high unemployment rate for African Americans, something she has described as `unconscionable.' Essence followed her work and advocacy and wrote about it in the January issue and we will continue that conversation at the festival's empowerment seminar. It's a very important issue."
This will be Franklin's third time performing at Essence. Franklin, who became engaged over the holidays to longtime friend Willie Wilkerson, performed the festival's inaugural year in 1995 and again in 2005. She is expected to be honored this year with the "Power Award."
Ebanks said the festival's theme this year is "The Power of Our Voice" and organizers felt it was a perfect opportunity to recognize Franklin's contributions to music and the community. She noted that Franklin topped Rolling Stone magazine's list of greatest singers of all time and that she was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"Through her music, philanthropy and authenticity, she has moved countless people around the globe," she said. "The award was an opportunity for us to emphasize the theme and we believed a way to personalize it was by recognizing Miss Aretha Franklin who is emblematic of that power. What better way to underscore that than to recognize her in gratitude for all she does?"
This year's festival will culminate with a tribute to gospel stars Fred Hammond and Mary Mary.
Essence Fest began in 1995 as a one-time event celebrating the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine. The festival is organized by Essence Communications Inc., a media company with a presence in publishing, live events and online services. The company's flagship publication is Essence magazine, the lifestyle magazine geared for black women.
Now in its 18th year, the festival has hosted an array of performers over the years, including Alicia Keys, Al Green, Beyonce, Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind & Fire, Gladys Knight, LL Cool J, Jamie Foxx, John Legend, the Isley Brothers, Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, Maxwell, the O'Jays, Prince, Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, Toni Braxton and Patti LaBelle.
Organizers say last year's festival drew more than 422,000 attendees. In an effort to give back to the festival's host city, Essence is once again partnering with the City of New Orleans to benefit initiatives to help its youth.
Each year, the festival kicks off with what Ebanks described as a "youth empowerment experience" that's free and open to all youth in the community.
"It's a full day of programs geared toward empowering youth in areas such as health and education. We bring in top speakers who have devoted their energies and money to helping our youth get better and we will continue to do that. We will work closely with the City of New Orleans and the mayor and his wife to underscore their `Saving Our Sons' initiative.'
Mayor Mitch Landrieu last year launched the anti-crime initiative in an effort to find solutions to the city's crime problems. Last year, the murder rate jumped by 14 percent in New Orleans with 199 homicides.
Associated Press Writer Stacey Plaisance contributed to this report.