NEW ORLEANS — Singer Mary J. Blige is no stranger to the Essence Music Festival and this year marked her 10th time as a performer, but her first as the event's closing night performance.
In an interview before Sunday's evening concert inside the Louisiana Superdome, Blige told The Associated Press she planned to put on a signature, high-energy show giving fans a taste of her classic hits while also showing them some of what's in store from her new project, "My Life II ... The Journey Continues," which will be released Oct. 14.
"On the first 'My Life' album, I just wanted to die," she said matter-of-factly. "I was pulled out of a really dark, close to suicidal situation, but on this one it's different. I want to live and let people know how to get through the challenges they face in life. This album reflects a celebration of life."
Blige, 40, said she hoped to "show everyone a good time."
"I plan to give everyone a chance to hear their favorite songs and help uplift the spirit and feel good about their life," she said. "I definitely plan to keep you dancing, and keep you moving."
And that she did. From the start of her show until the end, fans were on their feet, dancing and moving to classic Blige hits like "More Than I Am," ''Not Gon' Cry," and "Just Fine."
"She was awesome," said Gill Davidson, who was at the festival with his brother, Glenn Davidson, both of Washington, D.C. "She is just so real. Her songs are so related to her own trials and tribulations in her life that we can relate to her or we know someone who has been through similar situations."
Glenn Davidson said he admired Blige's professionalism on stage.
"What she brings to her craft is mighty," he said. "She works real hard and she puts that love and energy into every note and move she does. She leaves it all out there on stage and as a fan, I appreciate that."
Blige also showed her appreciation for her fans. At one point in her set, the crowd sang the lyrics to "Sweet Thing" and "I'm Going Down" as she watched from the stage, with a smile on her face.
"Man, I love y'all so much," she exclaimed. "Essence is the only play in the world to be for the 4th of July. Y'all sound so good," she said.
After a particularly gut-wrenching, heartfelt rendition of "No More Drama," Blige thanked the die-hard fans who've stuck by her through her rocky career.
"Thank you so much for having faith in me, for buying my records when nobody cared. I love you so much," she said, amid applause.
While in New Orleans, Blige's Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now received a $40,000 donation from McDonald's — one of the festival's major sponsors — and she was among five notables honored at the corporation's annual 365Black Awards distributed since 2003 during the festival.
Blige was recognized for her efforts through FFAWN, which she founded with entertainment mogul Steve Stoute, to offer scholarships and programs aimed at fostering self-esteem and career development for at-risk women.
"This is a big deal for me because it honors my philanthropy," Blige said. "I'm a baby on the philanthropic level but my career has always been about giving back. And this is exactly what I've always wanted to do. Since I was a child, I've always wanted to help us to be better and although I can't help everyone, I can get to some. FFAWN helps give women a second chance."
Also honored during the ceremony were legendary actress Ruby Dee, Radio One/TV One founder Cathy Hughes, Ben Jealous, president and chief executive of the NAACP and Henry "Hank" Thomas, one of the 13 original Freedom Riders who traveled throughout the South on Greyhound buses in 1961, protesting segregated facilities at bus stations and who also owns and operates three McDonald's restaurants in the Atlanta area.
Meanwhile, Blige said she's been focused on the new record and confirmed she is set to portray legendary jazz singer Nina Simone in a biopic scheduled to begin filming this fall. She said she's been studying hard to be a good actress and hopes that shines through.
The script is reportedly based on Simone's autobiography "I Put a Spell on You," and focuses on Simone's relationship with her assistant, Clifton Henderson, played by actor David Oyelowo.
Blige is also set to star in a comedy, "Rock of Ages," with Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise.