By CHEVEL JOHNSON
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The next generation moves to the forefront at this year's Essence Music Festival, which expands to four days of concerts and sets aside a day of activities geared toward emerging talent.
The up-and-comers will perform on the festival's opening day, July 5. Rising stars Diggy Simmons, the OMG Girlz and New Orleans' own Roots of Music will play on the New & Next Stage next to the Superdome.
Simmons is the son of Run DMC star Joseph Simmons. His uncle is record producer Russell Simmons.
The festival, which ends July 8, has been held every Independence Day weekend since its inception in 1995, when it marked the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine.
Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks told The Associated Press the addition of a young-people-focused fourth day underscores the festival's goal of giving new talent a springboard.
"The youth empowerment experience was part of the festival's original design," she said.
Focusing on pushing up youth had before now been the "unofficial" start of the festival's free daily "empowerment experience," which seeks to tackle issues affecting minority communities and underscored its goal of moving the community and its people forward, she said.
"We felt it was important now to formally expand the festival to four days and formally move that youth experience into the spotlight," Ebanks said.
"Diggy Simmons, the OMG Girlz and the Roots of Music are of the moment and speak to the new and next generation," she said. "The Essence Music Festival is all about featuring performances from artists who are very experienced and beloved who have long track records. This stage allows us to look at who might be the next Mary J. Blige or D'Angelo and we want to celebrate that."
Simmons and members of the OMG Girlz said they hadn't attended the festival but were in awe of the opportunity to entertain in a venue that's seen acts such as Beyonce, Usher, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Prince and Janet Jackson.
"It's definitely a big deal," Simmons said. "I'm excited about playing at such a big event."
Simmons and the OMG Girlz have shared the same stage before _ during 2011's Scream Tour.
Bahja "Miss Beauty" Rodriguez, 15, said performing on the Essence festival's "brand new stage" set up to showcase them was huge.
"We're just so honored," she said. "It gives us a chance to appeal to a bigger audience and to perform before people who haven't heard of us."
Zonnique "Miss Star" Pullins, 16, agreed, adding that the event "will give people a chance to see what we're about."
"Hopefully, we can build our fan base," she said.
The Atlanta-based girl group, which also includes 17-year-old Breaunna "Miss Baby Doll" Womak, was created in 2009 by Kiesha Miles and Tameka "Tiny" Harris, who is also Star's mother and whose stint with the 1990s group Xscape helped guide the trio to a deal with Interscope Records.
The girls also are scheduled to perform July 6 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Simmons, 17, of Queens, N.Y., recently dropped his debut album, "Unexpected Arrival," which features rapper Jadakiss, and R&B singers Jeremih and Tank. Simmons said he purposely kept the collaborations on this project at a minimum.
"I loved working with them," he said of the guest artists, "but I just wanted to showcase myself and showcase what I do."
The Girlz and Simmons each push a positive energy that Essence felt was conducive for the "New & Next" stage, Ebanks said.
"We sought groups who we could look to move youth forward as examples through their own experiences that might help point them in a better direction," she said.
"We try to bring a lot of positivity through our group," said Baby Doll. "We love what we're doing and we get along. We try to leave the drama on TV. It's an honor and a blessing to be in this kind of spotlight and we want to use (the fame) wisely."
"It's just how our parents raised us to be," Beauty said. "We like being a role model."
"A lot of girls look up to us," added Star. "We're able to talk to them about things we've been through or are going through."
Simmons said he's thankful for being able to positively inspire his fans.
"My message is always that it doesn't matter where you come from, go for whatever it is you want to do," he said. "Don't let life or distractions get in your way. Don't fall for peer pressure. Be yourself, be the person you want to be. The best thing you can ever do is bring what you want to the table."