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Cruisin' together: Are boats the last place to hear real R&B?

Given the climate of radio and blurring genres, you might need to hit the high seas if you want that old thing back.

Over the years, cruises have become the way to enjoy vacationing in a one-stop spot. Cruise lines offer everything you’re looking for in a trip, under one roof: activities galore for those nomadic souls who can’t sit still, a large array of buffets for the foodie in you, and a host of entertainment features to keep attendees engrossed. The ones on our radar are the enterprising soul music and jazz cruises with headliners who have us all searching under couch cushions and breaking piggy banks to purchase a ticket.

Per the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), 24 million passengers are projected to cruise in 2016 alone. This number is up from 22.4 million passengers in 2014. It’s no surprise that cruises are creating themes around top-notch artists to sell an experience for the soul aficionado.

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From Tom Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage, now in its 16th year, to the Soul Train Cruise, which has been newly acquired by BET, to the Capital Jazz Supercruise, soul music and artists are in popular demand and on the forefront of these travel escapes. For the classic soul music lover, the Soul Train Cruise boasts headliners like Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, Chic featuring Nile Rodgers, and SOS Band. The Capital Jazz Supercruise, billed as "a music festival at sea," leans to a more independent soul lineup with the likes of Ledisi, Eric Benet, Incognito, and Eric Roberson.

As the lines between music genres continue to blur and radio stations become more homogenous, cruises just might be the last place to hear traditional R&B. Just look at the playlist of New York's urban adult contemporary station WBLS. If you don't want to hear, for example, Chris Brown alongside Babyface or Vivian Green, radio might slowly run you off. But on the boats, artists like Ruben Studdard, Jennifer Hudson, Jazmine Sullivan, and Fantasia — younger performers who aren't blowing up from traditional radio — find a venue and a receptive audience.

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Guitarist/singer/songwriter Raul Midón is a certified veteran who has attended several cruises including the Seabourn Jazz Cruise, the Smooth Jazz Cruise, and the Capital Jazz Cruise. In his eyes, the mass appeal of these cruises are that “the entire boat is there for the same purpose — to hear music, make music, and meet musicians. Cruisers show great respect for the musicians and you get to know your fans and colleagues intimately.”

It surely doesn’t hurt that the fans who attend are bona fide music heads. “The Capital Jazz Cruise has some of the best attendees in the world,” said Midón. "The folks that come on that cruise are so musical. I’m speaking of the guests, not the musicians! It’s a lot of fun musically to be surrounded by people that really groove to the music."

King of Independent Soul Eric Roberson is not a stranger to riding the waves on these cruise lines, either. Over the past six years, he has held both titles of host and performer on the Capital Jazz Supercruise. “They can’t get rid of me!” Roberson exclaimed. “Performing on these cruises have been memorable. I not only get the chance to perform my show for my fans, but other artists will invite you to join them onstage as well. I dreamed of sharing stages with George Duke, Phil Perry, and other giants, and those dreams came true on these cruises. ... Some legendary things have happened on those stages.”

The secret to their success could very well be attributed to location and access. “The entertainment and festivities on the boat are curated by likeminded people, so everywhere you turn you will find something to enjoy,” Roberson said. “The other plus is the performers will usually be on the boat for the entire trip. So one night you are cheering and singing with them and the next morning you are standing in the omelette line with them. It really feels like a family environment, especially if you are seeing familiar faces.”

And successful they are! The Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage, called the "Party With a Purpose," is the biggest revenue generator for the Tom Joyner Foundation. "Our cabins are higher than most cabins," said Lue Calhoun, entertainment director of Reach Media Inc., "because it goes toward our HBCU scholarships, and we give a scholarship a day." The Tom Joyner Foundation has donated more than $65 million to helping students stay in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the Fantastic Voyage is most of the reason why.

So what are words some words of wisdom to live by if you’re a first-time cruiser? “Get excited!” said Midón. “You’re about to meet people whose music you admire and really see what they can do too!” While Roberson said, “Enjoy yourself and don't worry about your diet ‘til you get off the boat.” Sound advice, indeed.

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