Stars return for New Orleans festival

Beyonce and Lionel Richie are among the performers at a music festival which has returned to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit the US city two years ago.

Beyonce and Lionel Richie are among the performers at a music festival which has returned to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit the US city two years ago.

A brass band led a procession of feathered dancers through the Ernest Morial Convention Centre to kick off the three-day Essence Music Festival on Thursday.

"The party has officially started," said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, which owns the event.

Fans and performers said the return of the festival to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina is cause for celebration.

It's "a homecoming, a reunion", said Lionel Richie, who performed at the festival in 2005 - just weeks before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, flooding 80% of New Orleans.

The festival had been held in New Orleans over the Fourth of July weekend since its launch in 1995. Last year it was moved to Texas because of Katrina.

Richie is among the dozens of hip-hop, R&B and gospel artists performing this year.

"I would have played in New Orleans no matter what," said Richie, who performs today, the festival's closing day.

He also was among the headline performers in the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after Katrina in the spring of 2006.

"The incentive for coming is what the city is going through," he said. "I can't imagine a city with that much life in it dying."

Among the others performing this year are The O'Jays with Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill, Ludacris, Ciara, Beyonce, Robin Thicke, Mary J Blige, Chris Brown and Kelly Rowland.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called the return of Essence a "psychological salve to our wounds".

"It's much more than music ... this year is extra special," he said.

Besides the music, Essence hosts free, daily "empowerment" seminars with top voices in the black community tackling social issues.

For example, Public Enemy's Chuck D is a rapper and hip-hop statesman will participate in a panel discussion today.

Two Democratic presidential hopefuls, Illinois Sen Barack Obama and New York Sen Hillary Rodham Clinton, scheduled appearances during the festival.

Obama was to take to the stage on Thursday night during the concert portion of the festival.

Clinton was to participate in an empowerment seminar with motivational speaker Marcia Dyson.

The concerts are being held at the Louisiana Superdome, while the empowerment seminars are being held at the Ernest Morial Convention Centre. Both buildings sheltered masses after Katrina.

Essence recently agreed to a deal to keep it in the city through 2009.

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