NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More than 422,000 people took part in the 2011 Essence Music Festival held over the Fourth of July weekend in New Orleans, festival organizers said Tuesday.

For three days, thousands gathered for nightly concerts inside the Louisiana Superdome and free daily empowerment and community-based events at the city’s convention center where the festival, presented by Coca-Cola, celebrated its 17th anniversary.

Citywide hotel occupancy was in the mid-90 percent range or higher throughout the weekend.

“This year’s attendance ... certainly underscores the significance of the Essence Music Festival as the place where we all come together to celebrate culture and connect to our community,” Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks said.

Ebanks also said the festival’s popularity shows its significance as a one-of-a-kind platform for entertainment, information and inspiration.

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It’s been six years since Kem last took the stage at the Essence Music Festival and following his performance Saturday, he told reporters he was glad to return.

“I’d forgotten what a beautiful, positive event this is,” he said. “I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Kem surprised fans when he brought New Orleans native Ledisi on stage to perform his current hit duet, “If It’s Love,” originally recorded with Chrisette Michele on his latest album, “Intimacy.” The audience gave the pair a huge roar of applause and approval at the end of the song.

Ledisi said performing with Kem was “amazing.”

She said she was floored when the audience stood up to acknowledge her.

“It is so great that people know who I am and that people know my name — and how to say it,” she said, smiling.

During the set, the jazz-influenced contemporary R&B vocalist also took time to acknowledge his faith and to remind people of the power of second chances. Kem spent some time in the spiral of addiction and homelessness in Detroit before turning to God, a move that he has said has helped him get back on track.

In his effort to give back to that community, Kem is hosting a daylong free concert and food drive to benefit the city’s homeless on Aug. 28. Morris Day and The Time also are scheduled to participate in Kem Live (at) Mack & Third: A Call To Service.

“Mack & Third is about giving back,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to overcome many obstacles including being addicted and homeless. If it weren’t for organizations like the Detroit Rescue Mission ... I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

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Online:

www.mackandthird.org

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At this year’s Essence Music Festival, a South Carolina woman took home a new 2012 Ford Focus.

The automobile company, one of the festival’s major sponsors, gave away the car — which gets 40 miles to the gallon — as part of their effort to reach more African-American women, Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Michelle Matthews-Alexander said.

Test drives of the company’s new Ford Fusion and Ford Edge were available for fest-goers who also had the chance to register to win a car at the Ford booth set up inside the convention center. Four finalists were then chosen at random from the registry and they took to the main stage of the Louisiana Superdome for a round of musical “door tag” similar to musical chairs.

When the music stopped, the finalists had to land near one of the car’s four doors and the person whose door opened was the winner.

The lucky winner was Deborah Innis of South Carolina. Her hometown was not released.

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In a town known for famous drinks like the Hurricane, each year a signature cocktail is created at the Essence Music Festival and this year’s drink combined one of the South’s most known thirst-quenchers: fresh brewed, sweetened iced tea.

The “Belve Peach Essence” also includes Belevedere Vodka, one of the festival’s sponsors, peach schnapps, lemon juice and mint.

Celebrity bartenders, including singer and actress Letoya Luckett, actor Lance Gross and Rocsi, co-host of BET’s 106 and Park, re-created the drink in a bartending challenge during which they raised money that was given to the Red Cross of New Orleans.

The amount of money raised was not immediately released.