"So many years have gone by with me wanting to be on that stage," Hamilton told The Associated Press. "This is such a huge accomplishment for me that didn't come easily."
The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, wearing a flowing tangerine-colored dress, opened her show with "(Your Love has Lifted me) Higher and Higher" ''Natural Woman" and "Think." Midway through her performance, she left the stage so the festival could pay special tribute to her life and career as part of a ceremony where she received its Power Award. A video montage and brief history of her career was played for the audience before she returned wearing an olive- and gold-colored dress.
"We honor Ms. Aretha Franklin for having the greatest voice of all time," said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recognized Franklin's longevity in the industry and talent with awards from the state and city. "You are the essence of Essence," Dardenne said.
Franklin thanked them all "for these very wonderful and significant awards" and then returned to the music with her hit "Chain of Fools." She also played piano on several of songs, including "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
At the end of her performance, R&B superstar Chaka Khan returned for an encore show that included the newly comprised R&B Divas - Faith Evans, Nicci Gilbert, Monifah Carter, Syleenah Johnson and Keke Wyatt - who paid tribute to the R&B artists who died during the past year, including Whitney Houston.
Backed by a full band, Franklin entertained the audience after Hamilton's high-energy set that included most of his songs, opening the show with "Sucka For You," ''Cool," and "Comin' From Where I'm From."
Lesley Boudy, 27, who lives in the New Orleans area, said he liked Hamilton's "overall vibe."
"He was very interactive with the crowd, jumping off the stage and dancing with his fans on the floor. I liked that," she said. "I was a little disappointed he didn't sing his new hit, 'Pray for Me,' but I would love to see his high-energy again next year."
Hamilton noted he had consistently packed the SuperLounges set up inside the Superdome's corridors, and he believed he had long ago earned the main stage inside the cavernous arena. Last year, he sang there with Jill Scott.
"One of the goals when you perform at smaller venues is that you want to be in a place where all your fans can come see you," he said. "To be on that grand stage, wow, the feeling is unparalleled. I don't think performing at the Grammys would feel this good."
Gospel great Kirk Franklin and Fantasia also performed earlier Sunday at the festival, which is in its 18th year. Pastor Marvin Sapp, known for his hit "Never Would Have Made It," joined Kirk Franklin on his hit "Smile" and the O. Perry Walker High School band, including three drum majors, backed Fantasia on her opening song, "It's All Good."