April 29, 2014
It’s graduation season and with Howard University’s commencement set for May 10, there is an ongoing debate about the chosen speaker: music mogul, entrepreneur, and Howard alum/dropout Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.
On April 15, Howard announced via Twitter that Combs had been chosen as the commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2014. Students immediately took to their own Twitter accounts to voice their opinions, ranging from outright disapproval, to questioning the decision, to excitement over hosting an enormously successful speaker. A music legend in the hip hop genre, Combs has multiple successful business ventures, albums, and singles, giving him a net worth of over $700 million.
Despite his success, as a dropout from the university where he intends to give a commencement speech, it begs the question of whether he is worthy of speaking to a room filled with graduates, when he himself does not have this accomplishment on his resume?
Combs, born in Harlem, N.Y., graduated from high school in 1987 and then went on to attend Howard University. While a student there, he was known for producing weekly parties and running an airport shuttle service. In 1990, after two years as a business administration major, he dropped out in order to pursue an internship with Uptown Records. From there, he rose to fame as first the talent director and then vice president of the company and then eventually founded his own ongoing record label Bad Boy Records. Under Bad Boy, Combs signed major artist such as Notorious B.I.G, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lil Kim, TLC, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, SWV, and Aretha Franklin. He also produced multiple platinum albums and numerous Billboard Hot 100 songs, created the clothing line Sean John, created the cologne I Am King, helped develop Ciroc Vodka, and was named #12 on Fortune Magazine’s “Top 40 Entrepreneurs Under 40” list.
With all of this success, students such as Charles, a junior English major from Miami, Florida and Brittney, a sophomore English major from New York, believe that Combs is worthy of speaking. “As a businessman, it’s cool that he’s made a lot out of himself without a degree,” says Brittney. “Perhaps it’s his hip-hop stigma that makes people believe that he wouldn’t have anything to offer, but I think that he certainly does,” she continues regarding his experience as an entrepreneur and how he can use that to develop his message. “I see on TV and things like that, he seems to be very successful and has a lot going for himself,” Charles says. Therefore, he believes that Combs will have a word to speak and Charles believes “anyone who has a word is worthy to come and speak at commencement.”
Lyasiah Schoolfield, a senior fashion merchandising major from Ohio by way of Connecticut, considers Combs to be a pro. “He’s an entrepreneur, and I’m about to graduate, and I aspire to be an entrepreneur one day,” she comments. “If someone who has experience in that comes to speak to me, I think that that makes more sense than someone who graduated from an Ivy League university…who may not even be a millionaire to come rather than someone who actually went to Howard and has the experience,” she says. Bill, a senior journalism major from Baltimore, Maryland agrees. “People have a negative view about Diddy. They don’t take him seriously, but he is still an influential person. A lot of people aspire to have an empire even close to his. He is a good role model for people who want to hustle,” he says.
Sophomore chemistry major from Charlotte, N.C. Chris Bonner also sees Combs as a plus for the university. “Being black, I think it’s important to have somebody like that on our campus. He does make a lot of money, and he did make something out of his experience at Howard. Even though he didn’t graduate from here, he still used what he learned here to make that money,” Bonner states. “Even though he’s not my commencement speaker, he’s still a prominent black person in America, and why wouldn’t you want somebody who is successful speaking for you or towards your class?” Bonner questions.
A. Peter Bailey, acclaimed journalist, founding member of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), and friend of deceased civil rights leader Malcolm X, has an answer for that question.
Bailey contends that Combs is not worthy of giving the commencement, not because he did not graduate, but because he and other rappers such as Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent have made their fortunes pushing gangsta rap music which has led to many young black male incarcerations or deaths. “These guys have made money promoting a kind of egoistic, me myself and I, anyway you can lifestyle to young brothers, a lot of whom are now either in jail or dead following that philosophy that they were preaching,” he asserts. “And we’re rewarding that,” he says disappointingly referring to the fact that Combs is not only giving the commencement speech, but is also receiving an honorary doctorate from the university. “There all these black folks who have made major impact and you’re going to have him?” he continues to question. “He would not be my commencement speaker. I would not say to young black people here is someone you should emulate,” he continues.
Bailey believes that just because Combs has been able to make money and a name for himself, this does not negates the type of lifestyle he thinks Combs pushes. He does not believe it makes him worthy of being the speaker. He asserts, “I know he made money, but it’s not new. You have always been able to make money doing that kind of thing. It’s nothing new.”