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Prince's return shrouded in mystery as he helps mark Essence Fest's 20th celebration

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NEW ORLEANS - To mark the 20th celebration of the Essence Festival, organizers said they wanted the milestone anniversary to be as special or better than anything anyone had ever experienced. And, who better to help make that happen than Prince, said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc.

Ebanks, in an interview prior to Friday's scheduled show, said Prince returns to the Superdome's centre stage for a highly anticipated performance shrouded by a bit of purple haze.

"It's his stage," she said. "It's his genius. We know that he's putting together a really special evening but other than that, we'll just have to wait and see what happens. We're just privileged that he's performing at the festival this year. We are over the moon."

Ten years ago, Prince headlined that anniversary, reuniting with some of the players in his musical past — Morris Day and The Time, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and former protege Sheila E. The high-energy show ended with an emotional performance of Prince's megahit "Purple Rain."

This year, singer Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers, lead guitarist and co-founder of the band Chic, are scheduled to perform their own sets before Prince but it remained a mystery whether he — or members of his current all-female band, Third Eye Girl, would join them on stage or vice versa.

What fan can likely expect is an energetic show. In 2004, he performed classics like "Little Red Corvette," ''Controversy" and "Adore," as well as material from his album, "Musicology."

Earlier Friday, Ebanks welcomed festival-goers to the city as did New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Desiree Honore, undersecretary of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, on behalf of Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.

"It's just amazing how far we as a nation have come, yet 20 years later Essence again lets us know how far we have yet to go and how much more we have to do," Landrieu said.

The festival runs through Sunday, with free daily programming and events inside the city's convention and nightly ticketed concerts in the Superdome.

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