Hip-hop star in the schoolhouse

September 20, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

In retrospect, the ads plastered alongside The Alameda featuring a certain someone's new album could have been a hint.

Or maybe the hip-hop station's logo stuck onto the auditorium doors.

But students and staff at Winston Middle School had utterly no idea who was about to pay them a visit yesterday. When they finally found out, they went nuts -- the shrieking, fanning-themselves, eyes-tearing-up, smacking-their-friends, heart-clutching, Beatlemania-esque kind of nuts.

"It's Diiiiiiiddy!!!" an announcer yelled.

"Whaaaaaaaa! Aaaaaaaah! Whaaaaaaaa!" screamed back dumbstruck seventh- and eighth-graders packed into the stifling auditorium.

And there he was, half-walking slow, half-dancing cool, right across their wooden stage. Sean "Diddy" Combs, he of the many names and many professions was -- "ohmygaaaawd!!!" -- in the house.

Though hype and Diddy typically travel hand-in-hand, city and school officials managed to preserve the surprise of this visit, which falls on the front end of the famed music producer/fashion designer/party circuit mainstay's national schools tour to publicize his new album.

But while self-promotion certainly played its part in the star's Baltimore stop -- and city officials, with their proclamations and keys to the city, were more than willing to hop aboard Diddy's publicity train -- a more selfless, pro-education message framed the half-hour or so he spent at the Govans-area school.

"You can still kick it out on the corner with your friends, and you can still go to clubs," the 36-year-old gravely told the students, "but school has to be first."

The auditorium's dim lighting didn't persuade Diddy to part with his shades. Nor did a plucky eighth-grade girl who flat-out asked him for the glasses.

Diddy, dressed expensively down in a black leather jacket, loose-fitting jeans with gold back pockets and jewelry that might be worth more than Winston's annual budget, reminded the kids that despite the flash, he grew up just like them.

"When you see me on videos, with the jewelery and the money," he said, "it's important for all of you to understand how it got to that point."

How it got to that point, for Diddy, can't necessarily be attributed to reading, writing and arithmetic -- he attended Howard University but did not graduate.

But the star, in full role model stance, played that point down yesterday. And he certainly didn't mention his brush with the law a few years back in a nightclub shooting or his multiple out-of-wedlock children.

City school board Chairman Brian Morris, who was sitting in the front row along with City Council President Sheila Dixon and Deputy Mayor Jean Hitchcock, said Diddy's troubled history doesn't diminish his ability to encourage youth.

"He's a young black billionaire," said Morris, who confided to Diddy onstage that he was "a fellow member of the hip-hop generation."

"To share that with students is invaluable," Morris said.

Diddy asked the students to raise their hands if they plan to be lawyers someday. Or fashion designers. Or music producers, recording artists or professional athletes.

After hands flew up for the various options, he said, in his surprisingly low-key voice, that education was key to all of them. The kids, finally stone silent, stared at him intently.

"You want to be standing on the corner when you're 45?" Diddy asked. "That ain't a hot look.

"How many people want money by the time you're 30?" he continued. "You could be the next mayor, the governor, the next hall of fame athlete or the next doctor who comes up with a cure for AIDS or the common cold. I don't want to hear no excuses."

Though Diddy preferred that the press be barred, he allowed three students to ask him anything they wanted. Eighth-grader Roland Branch wanted to know what happened with Diddy's failed relationship with actress Jennifer Lopez.

"You meet some young ladies. You're down for a year or two. If it doesn't work out, you got to keep it moving," he answered. "You're a smart young man. There's no excuse for you not to be an A-student as quick as your mind is."

Before being whisked away to a news media event at a downtown hotel, the star left the school with this parting advice:

"Keep your grades up, stay out of trouble, stop the violence and love each other," Diddy imparted. "I'm out of here."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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