The Greatest Band in the Land Meets the Greatest Music Festival in the Land: How The Roots Opened Essence Fest
The Roots are the greatest band in the world. This is a statement, not an opinion. Nobody doesn’t enjoy them.
Essence Music Festival is the greatest black experience in the world. What other festival blends music, food, and culture in a way that you, your mama and your cousin can enjoy, all in one of the greatest cities in America?
Appoint the greatest band in the land to anchor opening night of the blackest of black weekends, and the result is musical magic. This year—the first year Essence Fest has sold out all three concert nights—each night featured a specially curated superset, and The Legendary Roots Crew lived up to their name with a night including Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and more. They took us on a full musical journey from Philly to DC to Houston to CHURCH!
Essence Festival for me is an intergenerational family experience: me, my boyfriend, my mama and her beau. We often we have different priorities for the concerts, but we were all agreed that Friday night was a must. Our experiential rundown is as follows: I’ve seen the Roots in action countless times, and they’re one of my favorite live acts. I’ve also seen Badu and Scott myriad times, but haven’t seen either of them in some years. My mom sees Scott almost annually, and has seen Badu, but never seen the Roots. Her beau has seen them all (he’s a music head who was also incredibly excited to see Big Freedia later in the weekend). My boyfriend was walking into his first live experience with all these artists. I love being with someone when they’re seeing incredible live performers for the first time, and I might have been more excited for him than myself.
As the intro clip rolled on the screens and we settled into our seats, Philly’s finest opened with “The Next Movement,” and then immediately got down to business. Black Thought first brought out Erykah Badu, aka Sara Bellum, aka Fat Belly Bella, aka Medulla Oblongata, aka Low Down Loretta Brown aka Analogue Girl in a Digital World to ask for a “Rim Shot,” and Erykah then introduced Jilly from Philly; Jill Scott. The thing about a Roots-curated show, and what stood out about this Roots set from the other supersets of the weekend, is that you’re not going see a few artists appear, singing their little three or four songs, and going about their way. No, no, no. There are going to be remixes, segues, musical tangents, tempo changes and breakdowns; you need to be ready for whatever when The Roots perform.
For example, we went with Scott on a “Long Walk,” and her suggestion that we could “…just be silent” led into the Roots’ “Silent Treatment," then we were back on our walk. Scott and Badu traded back and forth: “Long Walk” to “Other Side of the Game” to “Slowly Surely” to “It’s Love” and then…Wait, how did we get from New Orleans to D.C.? Questlove suddenly has us in the throes of a gogo beat with The Junkyard Band’s “Sardines and Pork and Beans,” and everybody in the crowd is jamming. Since he has us here, it only makes sense to go to “Da Butt,” right? What other hip-hop group is giving you this?
There’s more of the magical back and forth between Badu and Scott, at some point during which I look at my boyfriend, and he is gazing at Jill the way a kid looks at the Christmas tree when he first comes downstairs after Santa’s visit. His face is what writers of a former time would describe as “beatific.” Back to the dopeness of The Roots themselves, though. During “Love of My Life,” Black Thought formally introduced us to Jeremy Ellis, the band’s human beat, and sample machine. Jeremy is a “finger drummer,” who does on an MPC what Questlove does on a traditional drum set. Jeremy wowed us by morphing Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” into Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” James Brown’s “Just Enough Room for Storage” into Tribe Called Quest’s “Lyrics to Go,” and more, before finally looping back to Badu’s ode to hip-hop.
If our minds weren’t sufficiently blown at this point (about an hour in), Anthony Hamilton came out to join Scott for their duet “So In Love,” and stayed—with the Hamiltones—to grace us with a few more two-step tracks. The lady behind us asked my boyfriend and I why weren’t dancing together. She was genuinely concerned about us not taking advantage of the moment. (The answer: I’m the dancer in the couple.) The night wound down with Scott beaming at us like the sun while singing “Golden,” and during the song, my boyfriend leaned over and confided, “I think I’m in love with Jill Scott,” and I know he meant it. And I’m ok with it.
As Black Thought is introducing the band and thanking all the participants (side note, both Badu’s and Scott’s background singers be gettin’ it in), Kirk Franklin appears as though summoned by magic, and asks if he can do just one song. He’d brought the entire Family (as in Kirk Franklin and the) with him, and what proceeded was a mini-revival, because Franklin didn’t just do one song. Oh, no. He did about a 20-minute set, starting with “Melodies From Heaven,” the “Crush on You” remix. Friends of mine were leaving to beat traffic and came bounding back down the aisle when Franklin got started. A few minutes later, an arena of people was singing their parts for the breakdown. Franklin asked, “Can I do just one more song?” (he repeated this routine through his entire set), and went into “Lean on Me”—his version and the old school, clapboard church house version for all the nana’s in the house; then finally wrapped up with a rendition of “Stomp” that somehow led into Morris Day and the Time’s “Cool”…but worked! If you have never seen Kirk Franklin in concert, you need to make it your business to do so, whether you feel like you know Jesus like that or not. He gives you a show!
At this point we’ve all been dancing, singing, surprised, delighted, excited, and elated for two hours. However, what was top of my mind from the very beginning is that one of The Roots’ biggest songs is “You Got Me,” Jill Scott wrote the hook, and Erykah Badu sang it. I knew they were going to save that for last, and I wasn’t disappointed.
As we left the arena, a flurry of texts went back and forth about how much fun the night was, how it was the perfect start to the weekend, how needed it was. My intergenerational crew filed into the crowd of Essence attendees, making the trek away from the Mercedes Benz Superdome to a sufficient distance to catch a cab or call an Uber (the one downside to Essence Fest is getting home from the shows), blissfully recounting our favorite moments. I am grateful to The Legendary Roots Crew for one of the best opening shows I can remember in my Essence experience.