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Citizen Diddy

The Rapper-Designer Is Out to Make Voting Hip

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK, Sept. 2

The man who is the very richest undecided voter in Madison Square Garden on Thursday night is slumped in a chair in a swanky private lounge for very special Republicans. He has a tattoo on his neck and huge diamonds in his ears, a Yankees cap on his head. He has his cell phone in one hand and his BlackBerry in the other, tabbing back and forth between the two. The waiters and security guards recognize him. The other guests in the suite, men in perfectly cut suits and women with lacquered hair and pricey shoes, do not.

In a while, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie himself is going to come along and put an arm around this man, and escort him onto the convention floor, where the two will stop and chat, creating a mob scene of the curious and the cameras that will have security guards screaming frantically into their microphones. The Texas delegates, in their Lone Star shirts and 10-gallon hats, will stop their Dubya cheers and turn to gape.

An MTV crew films P. Diddy with RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie on the convention floor at Madison Square Garden Thursday night. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

But first, we have to ask: What should we call you?

"You can call me Sean," he says, "or you can call me P. Diddy."

His mother named him Sean John Combs, and then he was Puff Daddy, back in the J.Lo days. He lost that name when people started to boo him, after that bit of trouble with the gun in the nightclub. Now Mr. Diddy, multimillionaire mogul, rapper, clothing designer, restaurateur and father of three, has decided to extend his brand of street chic. He has become a political activist, taking $250,000 of his own money to found a new organization called Citizen Change.

He boasts he will drive up voting among the 45 million hip-hop young, who are, he says, "disenfranchised and so, so, so [angry] at being on the sidelines."

He has a shocking slogan -- "Vote or Die" -- plastered on 70,000 T-shirts now selling for $30 at stores from Macy's to J.C. Penney. In the promotional materials, 50 Cent wears his XXL and Mariah Carey wears one that is really tight above her teeny jean shorts.

"I wanted something dramatic, that would strike up controversy," says Diddy. "You can't not vote, is what I'm saying. People have died to have that right. When the president is running your country, he is running you, closing you out of a hospital, or taking you to war. Not just Bush. Every president." The way he sees it, the hip-hoppers already are wearing his Sean John clothes and buying his Bad Boy records and letting him tell them what's cool. They'll listen up when he tells them to register and get to the polls, not that he will be taking them personally, in his tricked-up Lincoln Navigator.

He sees himself as the third rail of American politics. "I'm their worst nightmare," Diddy declares, referring to the two political parties. "I'm closer than Kerry or Bush to these 45 million votes."

Diddy takes great pains to make it clear that although he voted for Gore in 2000, he is a registered independent in New York. A trial on gun charges may not ruin his reputation, but Diddy doesn't want anyone to think he's a Republican or a Democrat.

He went to the Democratic convention in Boston, and now he is here with his latest marketing scheme. "I'm going at it hard," he says. He started early in the day, with a couple of morning show interviews. Then he paired up with Paris Dennard, a 22-year-old black delegate from Arizona, and took him to a Harlem community center where Diddy himself once played on the basketball team, to hear from kids there. An MTV crew trails him, taping the tour for a voting special that will air in October.

At the center, the Minisink Townhouse, Diddy holds the mike. His hair is cut in a Mohawk, because he is in "warrior mode." Jad Joseph, 17, gets right into it with Dennard, demanding to know why Republicans are against gay rights and expanding stem-cell research.

Dennard compliments Joseph on how engaged he is. Diddy stands impassively, recording. If only more commentators would meet fine young men like Joseph, Dennard says, the stereotype against African American men might fall away.

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