The following is an excerpt from “The Rejected Stone,” the new book by MSNBC host and National Action Network president Rev. Al Sharpton.
Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, another music mogul I’ve grown close to, is a prime example of the capacity of black artists and music industry professionals to grow and change. I first met Diddy when he was in his early twenties, and he was under fire for his connection to a basketball game at City College in Harlem where nine people had died in a stampede. He had promoted the celebrity game, which was supposed to feature several rap stars playing ball. They tried to scapegoat Diddy, when it was really the irresponsibility of the college and the police that caused the tragedy. So I got other community activists to join me in standing up for him.
He was always ambitious, kind of hot-tempered but smart. He was the most natural brand marketer I ever met. He just knew instinctively how to promote, how to set trends. I saw things in him that reminded me of James and Michael. He was a real innovator. As he got older, we would talk more and more.
When he got into trouble with gun charges after he and Jennifer Lopez left a party, and Johnnie Cochran was representing him, Johnnie talked to me about supporting him, which I did. He came to church when I invited him. Over the years, he would always invite me to events such as his famous “White Party” in the Hamptons. What I liked about him was that he always had a sense of community. And the older he got, the more he talked to me, asking my advice about people, about deals he was working on, but it was mostly in passing when we saw each other. He told me he wanted to do something around voting and started the “Vote or Die” campaign in 2004, the year I ran for president, which registered a huge number of young people.
But, more important, it created a spirit in the younger generation that made it cool to vote. I think it changed the attitude of young folks in such a way that it helped Obama win in 2008. That wasn’t a venture to add to his riches; it was just his heart, doing what he believed in.
One day in early 2005, much to my dismay, Johnnie Cochran died of a brain tumor. As I was sitting on a platform at Johnnie’s funeral at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, Diddy looked at me and said, “You know, Johnnie was like my pops. Now he’s gone. So you’re gonna have to be my pops now.”
I joked about being just thirteen or fourteen years older than he was but it still being biologically possible for a man my age to be his father.
“I’m serious,” he said.
I looked at him closely. He was serious. “All right. Well, when you need me, call me.”
When we were leaving the church, he asked me how I was getting back to New York. I told him I was riding with Earl Graves, the publisher of Black Enterprise, on Pepsi’s corporate plane. Johnnie and I were both on Pepsi’s minority advisory board.
“Y’all got another seat?” he asked me.
“But you got your entourage,” I said.
“They can fly commercial,” he responded.
So he flew back with us, and we talked all the way back across the country. He said, “Tell me about how James Brown did what he did. How did he own radio stations when black folks didn’t have anything?” I told him about courage, about standing up and going to the next level. I told him that James Brown went to jail as a kid, but he had to get over his street mentality. I told him about Michael, about the ways he changed the game. And it led to a lot more conversations over the years.
Sometimes we won’t talk for a month or two, but then, out of nowhere, I’ll get a text. It’ll say simply, “Pops, call me.” He’ll want to pick my brain about something.
These conversations with Diddy paid off a few years ago, when the activist community got commitments from NBC, General Electric, and Comcast to make investments in the black and Latino communities as they were trying to get government approval for a merger. In addition to adding blacks and Latinos to their boards and agreeing to use black and Latino companies for services such as advertising and legal, they agreed to grant two TV stations to the black community and two to the Latino community. There were at least twenty African-American groups that wanted those stations. So Puffy came to my office and told me he really wanted to do this, to own one of the stations. It was clear he would be a very strong owner, with his business and marketing acumen and all his connections—he was and is hip-hop. But I felt I needed to get real with him for a minute.