The Power of Puffy
In the words of fellow rapper Mase, "Now Puff rules the world." Sean "Puffy" Combs, also known as Puff Daddy, is arguably the biggest figure in hip-hop today. His success is not just limited to his performing; Puff Daddy has also taken a behind-the-scenes role in the music industry and, in the process, has profoundly influenced black culture. Some critics have even gone as far as calling him the Elvis Presley of our decade.
To know Puff Daddy is to know his success. His single "I'll be Missing You" was number one on the Billboard charts for 42 weeks. His album No Way Out was the third best-selling album in 1997. Last year the number of "Benji's" (hundred-dollar bills, in Puff-speak) he earned totaled a cool $150 million. Not that you need to know all this trivia to know he's a success--all you need to do is turn on the radio and he'll tell you about it himself: "You name it I can claim it, / Young, black and famous, wit' money hanging out the anus."
It took him all of one year to become vice president of Uptown Records after landing a job there at 19. Today, the 26-year-old is founder and CEO of BadBoy Entertainment, the record label through which, it seems, anyone who wants to make it big must go. The Bad-Boy family which he fathered includes the biggest names out in the hip-hop world, names like Li'l Kim, Mase and the late Notorious B. I. G. Even those not on his record label are clamoring to get a piece; Puff Daddy has produced hits with Missy Elliot, Timbaland, Busta Rhymes and others.
But perhaps even more impressive are the recent appearances he has made outside of the hip-hop arena. Of late, Puffy has shown great interest in the sports and entertainment world at large. He has become a licensed NFL agent, wooing last season's Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson. He is also working on an upcoming movie looking at professional football management which he will star--in and perhaps even produce--alongside Al Pacino.
Puffy appears to have it all. But he has more than just the rare combination of youth, fame, wealth and black skin-in the hip-hop industry, there are plenty of personalities who fit that bill. What makes Puffy a phenomenon is that in a society where blacks have historically been lauded (and exploited) for their musical talents, they have rarely been allowed to run things. Puffy, however, has taken over.
Or has he? How far does Puffy's authority really lie beyond in the hip-hop world? His label is owned by Arista Records which in turn is run by BMG Entertainment, very much a part of white corporate America. Even in scenarios where black successes and authority exist, their achievements are still limited by the institutions of white America. The fact that there are no black NFL team owners demonstrates these limits as well. In cinema, Debbie Allan had to push for ten years until she could get the backing of Steven Spielberg to produce Amistad. Moreover, Puffy's success has depended on the suburban white teenagers who have become the biggest consumers of hip-hop and Puffy's target market.
It is no coincidence that Puffy's ascendance into the echelons of the business world could only come in the areas of music and, to a lesser extent, sports and cinema. These are the spheres blacks have always been limited to in their quest to "make it out."
As long as they stayed in these places and showed that they "knew their place" by not assuming too much authority or trying to step beyond those arenas, blacks have been able to achieve considerable success. This explains the abundance of professional basketball and football aspirants in the school yards of the inner city, as well as the preponderance of street corner rappers.
But we know that, of these dreamers, only a select few will actually make it. Perhaps the title of his albumNo Way Outpoints to his recognition of these limitations on black people. After all, it hardly applies to Sean Combs. If anyone has made it out, Puffy has.
In a sense, Puffy is a deceptive role model for the black community. He has actually made it out and is thus able to provide a sense of hope and opportunity for those who have not, yet in doing so he reinforced the stereotypes that discourage young black children from pursuing other fields where they are grossly underrepresented. Puffy's success would be even more impressive if it could be extended into sports team ownership or even into politics. It would be interesting to see how far America is willing to let a black man go.
Carine M. Williams '00 is a African-American studies and social anthropology concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.