The Week-Long Cruise Most White Folk Know Nothing About

There are some things that are still ‘A Black Thang’

I could just let you all look at this above head-shot and ruminate on who this man is. I could ask for a show of hands and tell the Black people not to help they White friends out. But I won’t be that way.

That right there is the most listened to, most syndicated man on radio today. That’s Tom Joyner and for the past 18 years he’s skippered the “Ultimate Party with a Purpose,” the Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage, most commonly called the Tom Joyner Cruise.

And this is a bucket list type of thing. Tickets sell-out quick. And we’re not talking cheap tickets either. A basic ticket will set you back $2,700 but if you really wanna ball out, there’s some suites for $18gs.

It’s major.

And set to sail soon.

Google won’t help you understand how big this is so I’ll act as tour guide for those who are not informed and I’ll be like a preacher for the choir of most of my people who will go, “mhm” or nod in agreement as we talk about one of the most successful cruises that you never heard of.

President Obama: Is this the world-reknowned Tom Joyner?

Tom Joyner: (laughs) You make me feel so good.

President Obama: I was just telling somebody about the Tom Joyner cruises. I can’t go on those as President, but who knows when I’m done.

Tom Joyner: April….April 2nd. You got time.

President Obama: (Laughs) You know what? All I’d be doing is just taking selfies the whole time.

Tom Joyner: (laughs) Ain’t nothing wrong with some selfies. I take a lot of em. I’m here to tell ya. Ain’t nothing wrong with em.

President Obama: I know that’s right. Then the folks don’t know how to work the camera. Talking about, ‘hold on, I didn’t get a good one. I need to take another one. I wasn’t smiling enough’

Ahhhh, the beauty of code-switching. President Obama was quite adroit on when to do it. Knowing about the Tom Joyner Cruise — well played.

But most Black people do.

In the hands of young people, they talk about Tom Joyner Cruises when they want to talk about a certain type of music as being ‘old’ or ‘grown and sexy.’ For Gen X’rs like myself, we begrudgingly talk about it as purgatory for artists that we believe are under appreciated. And for our Baby Boomer parents, the Tom Joyner Cruise is a destination.

I can see now though, I’m creeping up on the linen suit and sandal set from looking at this year’s performers. But we’ll get to that in a second.

The Tom Joyner Morning Show is what I listen to when I’m in the car visiting my Dad in Fort Washington, Maryland. Fort Washington is at the head of Prince Georges County, one of the biggest, well-to-do Black counties in the US so it’s a key market for the radio show and THE demographic for the Fantastic Voyage Cruise.

The annual cruise is advertised as having “something for everyone” and with themed parties, activities, seminars, fitness classes and entertainment — ranging from DJs, Singers, Rappers, & Comedians, that seems to be the case.

All proceeds are said to go the Tom Joyner Foundation which has raised over $60 million dollars for HBCUs since its inception in 1998.

How did Tom Joyner get this large? Truth to tell, I ain’t know myself. He’s been a fixture and a name in the Black Community since I was 6 years old. So before we talk about the Fantastic Voyage the Cruise, let’s look at Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage into becoming one of our most trusted Radio talents.

It seems that Joyner has always had grand ideas.

Joyner graduated Tuskegee, bounced around a couple of radio stations, moved to Chicago in 1978, and before the year was out he had already attracted the attention of John Johnson of Ebony/Jet fame. Johnson owned an AM radio station, WJPC, that was losing listeners with every tick of the clock.

Although some media speaks of Joyner as being plucked from obscurity, Jet Magazine had a four page spread about his arrival at WJPC, an arrival that was star-studded, included paparazzi, limos, and Joyner’s former band and classmates, the Commodores. John Johnson is said to have paid $25,000 to Joyner’s old station, WBMX, to have him at WJPC. Doesn’t sound like Joyner was obscure to me.

But he was ambitious.

“My goal is to make radio history. I want to turn this station into the number one AM daytime station in a major market,” Joyner told Jet Magazine in August of 1978.

Tom Joyner’s early days at WJPC were during the oil crisis and listeners frequently complained about gas prices. So Joyner plucked $1,000 from Johnson, went to the Southside of Chicago, and made it so that people could now buy gas $.50 on the gallon. In a similar act in 1980, Joyner was a part of a campaign to sell $35 of groceries for $5. Cars lined up for 20 blocks to take advantage of that deal.

It was these type of charitable acts and Joyner’s humor that endeared listeners to him, most of whom became loyal followers.

And that loyalty is what had two stations vying for Joyner in 1985, K104 in Dallas (where Joyner went to DJ in 83), and WGCI in Chicago. Reviewing the contracts, Joyner realized that he could do both — K104 in the morning and WGCI in the afternoon. For the next eight years he did just that.

Each morning, Joyner would broadcast his show in Dallas, then his wife would meet him at the station with a briefcase containing a VCR, a tape recorder, videotaped news programs, copies of both cities’ newspapers, a USA Today, and a vegetarian lunch — his “I-spy kit,” one station manager called it. Then he would race to the airport, catching up with the day’s news en route to Chicago. A waiting limo would take him to a health club, where he’d work out before heading to WGCI in time to do the afternoon show. Then he’d hop a plane and head back to Dallas just to start the process all over again the next day. Muriel L. Sims

This workload earned Joyner the titles “Fly Jock” and the “Hardest working man in radio,” and it also cost him his marriage. He was burnt out by 1993. Luckily, Joyner was saved by technology.

Satellite radio was becoming popular, making the careers of people like Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. Satellite allowed for the Radio DJ to be in one place and via syndication, broadcast their show in multiple markets. ABC Radio Networks courted Tom Joyner in 1994 and he became the first Black male, syndicated Radio personality in America.

There were two other events that took place in 1994 and 95 respectively that were a big deal in Black America and would have a strong impact on Joyner. One took place in the city of New Orleans, the other on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Those two events are the Essence Festival and Sinbad’s Summer Jam: 70’s Soul Music Festival and they would be the inspiration for the Fantastic Voyage.

It feels like the Essence Music Festival has been going on forever. And, I guess if you’re a college student, it has.

Edward Lewis, Essence Magazine co-founder, wanted to have a special event for the magazine’s 25th anniversary. While having a drink with festival pioneer, George Wein, the idea was thrown out to have it in New Orleans. Inspired, Lewis latched on to the idea and began planning with sales promotion manager Karen Young who was hired back at Essence just for the festival.

Young not only secured sponsors (the main one being Coke), she suggested the idea of having seminars and symposiums in addition to musical acts. George Wein’s Festival Production worked at organizing everything else.

Anita Baker, Boyz II Men, Luther Vandross, Mary J Blige, & Maze featuring Frankie Beverly (make a note of them) were some of the headlining acts and the festival was a huge success.

It drew 145,000 people to New Orleans during the Fourth of July Weekend in 1995, and netted $500,000 in profits. The night I stood on stage looking at the 50,000 concertgoers whose presence confirmed the validity of the Essence market, and the power of the Essence message, I knew the music festival was the beginning of something much larger than a one-time twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration. Edward Lewis

It’s easy to forget now how huge Sinbad was in the 1990s. (no pun intended). My first exposure to Sinbad was on Different World where he played dorm director Walter Oaks, but he had been grinding on the comedian circuit long before that.

When did we know that Sinbad was a big deal? When his comedy special Brain Damaged aired on HBO. Recorded at Morehouse’s King Chapel, every damn body in the AUC (Morehouse, Spelman, Clark, & Morris Brown) stuffed themselves in the auditorium to be a part of the taping.

It would be the first of many specials that Sinbad had in conjunction with HBO. For our writing, though, it’s Sinbad’s Summer Jam: 70’s Soul Music Festival that was filmed in St. Martins that we’re going to look at.

Sinbad rounded up a who’s who of 70s acts — War, The Average White Band, the O’Jays, The Ohio Players, & Maze featuring Frankie Beverly (take another note) — to name a few.

Sinbad said the Fest was “…almost like a family reunion, a celebration. And what I wanted was more than a concert, I wanted a celebration.”

Seeing the success of both of these festivals, proved to Joyner that:

Black people had disposable income and were willing to travel outside of their own city and even the country to see their favorite music groups. Tom Joyner.
Tom Joyner’s 2012 Fantastic Voyage

Remember when them Tyler Perry plays started circulating via blurry ass VHS and DVD in the early 2000s? It was hard to miss ’em. If you went to a family members during any holiday, at some point, your auntie nem would throw that jawn on, everyone would gather around the television, and for the next hour and a half, they would be belly-ache laughing.

That was usually my cue to leave the room with a book.

The same way I avoided Tyler Perry plays was how I avoided learning anything about Tom Joyner’s cruises. Because at these same gatherings, while watching these Tyler Perry plays, my family would be ruminating on if and when they were going to go on a cruise.

I lumped those two — Tyler Perry & Tom Joyner Cruises — together as two things that I would never participate in. In my mind, they were of equal taste.

When I stopped being i’gnant, I learned of how Tom Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage benefited HBCUs. And that was cool. But I still didn’t have the desire to see One Way, Con Funk Shun, and these type bands…on a cruise. Love the music, but I’d rather just experience it in my headphones.

It wasn’t until recently that I really began looking at the line-up and activities.

And I was impressed.

Year after year, and we’re talking since 1999, the cruises sell-out. That’s 4,000 people a pop. It’s a well-known fact among Cruise companies that Tom Joyner was the first ever to charter and program an entire ship…and that’s activities 24–7 for seven…sometimes eight days.

For those seven days, cruises have different theme parties: All Black Everything, Denim & Diamonds, #FlashbackFriday, Mardi Gras, Pajama Night, Represent Night, White Night, and a formal Sneaker Ball were themes of 2016. There’s seminars, how-to, and network sessions. There’s comedians. One year they had an art buying seminar. There was even a cruise that featured early morning devotions by Dr. Bobby Jones.

When I saw this year’s line-up though, I had to face my mortality.

Like I said, in my mind (and I’m not alone in this, I’m sure), I thought the Tom Joyner Cruise was only for the grown and sexy acts. Seeing Jennifer Hudson or Fantasia or Anthony Hamilton on a Cruise was pretty typical. But this year I saw Rakim! Rakim Allah. The R. The 18th Letter. That’s what made me investigate. Then…damn.

There’s a whole Straight Outta Compton Edition (that’s how it’s advertised…seriously). That revue is Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella, DJ Quik, and the D.O.C. And if that wasn’t enough, they have this thing called Best of The Boy Bands with K-Ci and Jo Jo, Silk, Troop, & Dru Hill. Man, Trick Daddy & Trina are on this Cruise.

In my mind, I was old when Silk, Troop, & Dru Hill were top of the charts. Now they’re on a cruise that I once believed was for old people. What does that say about me?!?

And I want to see Maze featuring Frankie Beverly — they Black as Hell.

At the end of the day, one should be so lucky as to make it into their mid 40s. And, not just make it there but to be a tad bit wiser.

I see how the world is going. I’ve had multiculturalism shoved down my throat for over two decades now. But everyone else on the planet is free to go amongst their own, relax, and share in things that are intrinsic to their culture.

Rap has been completely infiltrated, what people call Hip-Hop flourishes in places like Japan and France more than it does in any “inner city” in America, and you can hardly go to any event without bumping into some Johnnie Come Lately “expert” trying to school you on something that you lived your whole life.

But that won’t be happening on Tom Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage.

The tell-tale sign of Blackness for me is the almost non-existence of coverage online. Good luck on finding more than three articles on Sinbad’s Summer Jam or the origins of the Fantastic Voyage. It just ain’t there.

What is there is my instant connection when hearing, reading, or viewing highlights from any of the above mentioned Festivals.

Watching clips of thousands of people Wobble or do the Booty Call, makes me feel like I’m in my Dad’s backyard in Fort Washington. It’s familial. Now whether I shell out a couple of grand to be around my family is another thing.

I think I’ll just wait until a graduation, or Memorial Day, or some other day, and go home for free.

The 18th Annual Tom Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage leaves out of New Orleans on 2 April 2017…and I’m pretty sure it’s sold out.

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