As a self-made, multimillionaire mogul, Puff Daddy is the perfect person to deliver the commencement speech at Howard University this year. Who cares if he dropped out after two years?
Forbes magazine, perennial accountant of other people's money, wondered a few years ago, "Who Will Be Hip Hop's First Billionaire?" Turns out the answer is (almost) Puffy, who's worth about $700 million dollars at this point—a fortune greater than Jay Z and 50 Cent's respective net worth figures combined. Having just launched a new, hip-hop-oriented digital media network, Revolt TV, in October, Diddy’s success story is ever in progress. Whether or not this is all due to the fact that Puffy couldn't stop, surely we all know and agree that he wouldn't stop, and didn't stop. God bless him.
Now that Forbes has crowned Puffy the Duke of Hip Hop, it just so happens that Howard University—a prominent, historically black college in D.C., for those who don't know—has tapped Class of '92 dropout, Puffy, to receive an honorary degree, after all these years; and to address the graduating Class of 2014.
And now, let's bring out the Madd Rappers:
Can someone explain why Diddy, a person who never graduated from Howard, is speaking at graduation?— D. Gregory Carter (@DarienCarter) April 15, 2014
Diddy is going to speak at Howard's graduation this year...interesting...a big difference from Bill Clinton last year— Alexus Jones (@_AlexusJones) April 15, 2014
("A big difference" meaning, of course, that Bill Clinton is a white man who went to Georgetown instead of Howard.)
The particulars of this backlash are perplexing. Much of it reads as the snootiest sort of school spirit, but it's unclear whether the rap against Puffy is due to his failure to graduate, or to the feeling that, as a hip hop mogul, Puffy is a "ridiculous" option because he doesn't wear wilted grey suit jackets and lie to Americans about public policy for a living. Or maybe some of these folks just really hated Forever, which is certainly understandable.
Dropout or not, Puffy is a major creator within black culture, within American culture, and he reflects well on the university he attended for two years.
Mind you, the argument for Puffy's selection isn't that he's amassed a net worth of nearly a billion dollars since ditching Howard for Uptown Records. Dropout or not, Puffy is a major creator within black culture, within American culture, and he reflects well on the university he attended for two years, alongside fellow Howard dropouts Marlon Wayans and Anthony Anderson. Puffy is a star of Howard's legacy.
For comparison's sake: Howard's most recent commencement speakers include both Clintons, Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., galactic emperor Oprah Winfrey, time-honored poet Maya Angelou, and the Obama administration's incomparably tall and dexterous Secretary of Education. If there's a theme here, it's Howard preferring a "respectable" sort of desk-professional icon to draft the inspiration and outlook for its graduates. The drab, anti-rebellious vibe to all this consternation is somewhat par for D.C. But even this criteria fails as a reasonable filter: both George W. Bush and Barack Obama's chief consigliere made their big breaks in political consulting after having dropped out of college.
Pomp and circumstance is stuffy enough without requiring the honorees to be so prim and predictably forgettable. Prominent, rich, (read:) white universities love dropout honorees and speakers who otherwise hail from left field. Steve Jobs, for instance, gave one of the most widely disseminated commencement addresses of modern memory, at Stanford University, despite Jobs' (a) having dropped out (b) of some other college. Touché.
Oprah dropped out of Tennessee State University in 1976. She delivered Howard's commencement address in 2007.
Maya Angelou ain't even start college.
We could do this all afternoon.
Writing for TIME magazine, former North Central College president Harold Wilde suggests that universities task themselves with impossible missions when it comes to recruiting high-profile commencement speakers, when the outgoing class mostly just wants to bask in platitudes and wealth insights from a celebrity:
The expectation of graduates and their families is that a big-time speaker will be there to put the cherry on top of the sundae that was their college experience (and all those tuition dollars).
No, sorry. Nope. Gonna have to disagree with you there—given the parable gist of most commencement speeches, I'd say the upshot is, typically, the speaker's attesting to the graduating class that there is more to life (and struggle and success) than just having managed to graduate college. Seems Puffy learned that lesson earlier than most. He should give a speech about it. Maybe inspire some fledgling adults.
Justin Charity is a fiction writer and freelance struggle correspondent. He tweets as @BrotherNumpsa.