This year’s Essence Festival comes at a tumultuous time in America’s conversation about race, and Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks says the festival is prepared to participate with a focus on African-American community building.

“Essence has been community-centric by its very design,” Ebanks said Friday morning at a news conference. “We can’t just have a party. We have to have free programming that is relevant, inspiring and purposeful.”

The annual festival, held each July Fourth weekend, presents empowerment activities during the day at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and concerts at night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

This year, it began on Thursday with, for the first time, a day of service that brought volunteers to help schools in the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East prepare for the upcoming school year.

Thursday night, comedian Kevin Hart celebrated his birthday when he headlined a Superdome show that also featured ladies’ man Trey Songz and a surprise guest spot from local rapper Juvenile.

“It’s awesome to be a part of something so instrumental in the culture,” Songz said after his set.

Essence Festival started in 1995, when it branded itself as “the party with a purpose” with a focus on the social, political, spiritual and musical interests of African-American women — the core readership of Essence magazine.

It moved to Houston in 2006 when the Convention Center and Superdome were not yet ready to host events after Hurricane Katrina, but it returned to New Orleans in 2007.

“Essence came back, but it didn’t come back a little bit,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at the news conference. “It came back strong. We have never had a better partner than Essence and the Essence family.”

“South Carolina was a cathartic moment for the United States of America,” Landrieu said, referring to the shooting deaths of nine black people last month inside a historic Charleston, South Carolina, church. “We have to use that moment, that very difficult moment, as a learning experience and a strong platform to build into the future. It is not just the symbols — which matter a lot — but what created the symbols that we have to continue working on.”

Ebanks never specifically addressed current controversies, instead focusing on bringing people together.

“It’s important at any time for the community to come together to talk about what’s happening and to hear from community leaders and those who have been personally impacted,” she said in an interview.

“We have to feel. We are human. For years, we’ve had a prayer vigil for mothers who have been impacted by tragedy.

“Those rituals — whether they’re spiritual, or the food we love or the music we love — those are our connections to each other, and they’re a source of strength. All of that exists here to a factor of 10.”

According to Ebanks, organizers did make some final changes in the schedule to make this year’s Essence Festival as relevant as possible, but “it didn’t take much tweaking,” she said. They already had booked Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and had scheduled a panel on the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the Superdome, Essence Festival is similarly about the music that brings the African-American community together, including apolitical former longtime festival closers Frankie Beverly and Maze, who returned to headline Friday night after a six-year absence.

The night before, Hart similarly skipped political commentary to joke about his domestic relationships. The only times guns and violence appeared in his comedy came courtesy of a menacing raccoon and a shark attack he imagined might bite his wife’s shoulder off.

“I’m a drastic thinker,” he said.

The Essence Festival continues at the Convention Center and Superdome until Sunday night, when Mary J. Blige and rapper Kendrick Lamar will close the show.