This past weekend in Washington, DC Howard University hosted its 146th Commencement exercises to honor the graduating class of 2014. This year’s keynote address was delivered by “Howard University’s own” Sean “Diddy” Combs. The tongue-in-cheek reference to Combs as a son of Howard refers to the fact that Combs did briefly attend HU, but never completed his studies or earn his bachelor’s degree elsewhere.
From the moment Howard’s selection was announced, the topic ignited a firestorm of controversy and debate. (As an aside, the irony within said debate is that most of the opinions have come from folks who, much like Combs, did not actually graduate from Howard, either.).
Let me say up front that I am one of Diddy’s biggest and unabashed STANS. I bare no bones about my high admiration for Mr. Combs. His drive, talent, ambition, and flair have always inspired me to THINK B.I.G.
However, I thought Combs was a terrible choice for a commencement speaker. I believed that there is, and should be a platform for Diddy to impart his words of advice, congratulations, and support to Howard graduates. I believed that there is a legitimate space to impart on them the importance of hard work, and to encourage them to be unafraid to take non-traditional routes toward their dreams. I simply did not believe that commencement is that forum because the sacrifice that was made by those students, and their families, is not one which he was willing to make.
After watching his speech no fewer than four times, I cannot think of a time I was more prepared to admit that I was dead wrong than I am now.
Diddy Does the Yard
In typical fashion, Dr. Combs started with his unique brand of humor and charisma and blended it with a personal and affable style that easily engaged his audience. The man is indeed one of the world’s greatest entertainers and while labeling his speech a “performance” cheapens the moment, he stood and delivered with remarks that had far more hits than misses. Combs opened with a personal account of his days as a student at Howard and referenced his time on “the Yard” while also joking about having lived in the freshman dormitory while there. For someone who only spent two years at the Mecca, this was a clever method to immediately engender a familiarity with the graduates that might have been lost by other speakers who didn’t actually attend Howard. It was smart, and effective in that it brought many students back to the nostalgia of the beginnings of their own journeys as it was near full circle on graduation day. A subtle but critically important piece to this portion of his remarks was his reference to the diversity he found as a native New Yorker who stepped on Howard’s campus for the first time. Many of my friends who didn’t attend HBCUs seem to think the Black college experience is a monolithic one. Little more could be further from the truth. The breadth of diversity found throughout the African diaspora is encapsulated and reflected through the life at Howard University. Combs’ comments about the different accents, appearances, and languages he encountered as freshman were an important nod to a point many take for granted and should serve as a critical reminder for many that there is a richness in our culture that should be celebrated.
There is No Success Without Failure
The linchpin of Combs’ speech was his reference to his 2003 run of the New York City Marathon. Combs spoke of his abridged training regimen and was straightforward in admitting that, much like his academic pursuits, he was not fully prepared for such a difficult journey. He talked about his body failing him halfway through the race, and about how in not completing his degree, he sometimes found himself outmatched in boardrooms early in his career. Still, he went further to discuss how each of these challenges presented him with the choice of how to respond to adversity. Combs was able to convey his point here, and throughout his speech with minimal reliance on the typical catch phrases that run abound in graduation addresses this time of year.
Combs also talked about his early failures at Uptown/MCA records under Andre’ Harrel, who looked on with smiles of approval, as his former protégé challenged the graduates to “step outside the darkness and claim the light.” By sharing his experiences in such an unguarded and revealing fashion, he spoke to much of the uncertainty and apprehension facing graduates who were on the verge of entering ‘the real world.’ He did this, in part, by remembering a relative who told him to “not be afraid to close [his] eyes and dream but to also open [his] eyes and see” and encouraging the graduates to be truthful with themselves about what is truly needed to bridge the gap between their goals and their realities.
"Do You Know How Powerful You Are?"
Combs repeatedly asked the graduates whether they were aware of their inner power. His speech reminded them that by simple virtue of seeing their own visions of graduation day into fruition, that they were indeed powerful. This is, of course, a common theme in graduation addresses but Diddy delivered it in a way that truly made the audience feel and believe it.
Admittedly, there were a few places where it seemed Combs had hoped for a stronger reaction from the crowd, yet his words were not as rousing as he might have hoped. Strangely, an attempt to evoke a chant of “Bring Back Our Girls Now” fell flat among the crowd. But, it was in the less contrived moments where Shiny Suit Man was truly at his best. Beyond any manufactured attempts to play to the crowd, when he spoke to the students in his true voice, his credibility, honesty, and passion was all that was really needed to get the right reaction.
If there was anything that was most memorable about Combs on Saturday, it was the sincere humility and sheer excitement with which he approached the moment. In thanking family and friends, and opening up about the death of his drug-dealing father, a man not widely known for being humble displayed a real understanding of the magnitude of the moment and a gratitude for the opportunity. That was not only very impressive but also genuine and added to the personable nature of his delivery.
I’ve sat through countless graduation speeches, two of which were delivered from the same stage Dr. Combs spoke from on Saturday. As I reflected on my own memories from commencements past while watching Dr. Combs, I can say that the class of 2014 truly enjoyed a special treat.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former Kings County (Brooklyn), NY prosecutor and presently functions as a federal trial attorney specializing in civil rights and employment discrimination. He is a proud two-time alumus of Howard University. Follow him on Twitter: @CFColemanJr.