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Hip-Hop Fridays: Students' Savvy Candor On A Recent Diddy Visit by Annette John-Hall

Celebrities spread themselves over the public consciousness like ultra-rich manure. They're messy and they're everywhere. They saturate us with their images on radio and television, with their CDs and remixes and clothing lines, on their own reality shows and MySpace sites, and in the glossy pages of gossip magazines, where every aspect of their lives is dug up, chewed up and spit out.

Like the pop-culture vultures we are, we circle and swoop. Teenagers are the biggest consumers. Makes no difference if they ever actually meet Lil' Kim, Lil Wayne or Danity Kane, they feel like they know them, so taken are they with celebrity.

Christopher Johnson understands the lure. So when the Ben Franklin High School principal got a call from reps for Diddy - the rapper, producer, clothing mogul, hip-hop superstar also known as Sean Combs - with an offer for him to come to the school and speak to students last week, he saw a chance to reward their hard work.

It wasn't Barack Obama or Colin Powell. But it was someone even more influential in their world.

And that, says Johnson, "is powerful."

I invited Johnson and a group of his students to the paper the other day to give more insight: Did Diddy's message of empowerment resonate with kids worn down by flying bullets and a triple-digit murder tally? Could they possibly find anything in common with a man who wears diamond chains worth more than their families' yearly income? Whose logo is emblazoned on their clothing? Could it be Sean John?

Say one thing about teens: They're savvy. They may watch reality shows, but they know their own reality doesn't come close to the tanning-bed bliss of Laguna Beach or the daddy's-girl petulance of My Sweet Sixteen. As if.

Dion Robinson, 17, was one of the students Diddy called onto the stage to discuss his future.

"He left a message that sunk in with a lot of us," says Robinson, who wants to go to Howard University and study to be a physical education teacher. "A lot of students don't listen to anyone, but they'll listen to Diddy because they listen to him on the radio."

But while they were flattered that Diddy chose Ben Franklin to visit, his "take responsibility for your future, no excuses!" message, while on point, was taken for what it was - generic advice from a superstar whom they'd probably never see again.

"You'd rather hear something from someone who you know cares about you," says Regina Jean-Paul, 17, a senior who has a full scholarship to study fashion design at Moore College of Art and Design.

You can't blame her ambivalence. Diddy was to grace another inner-city high school with his presence as part of a 21-city tour to promote his new CD, Press Play.

Hard to think that Philadelphia's teens weren't a little played themselves.

They're the ones left with having to negotiate gun play instead of playgrounds, to live in a city that some teens have dubbed "Killadelphia, Pistolvania," notes senior Shaday Festus, 18, who hopes to be heading to Temple to study law.

Record promotion or not, Diddy did overcome similar struggles in his rise to celebrity.

Meanwhile, hypocrisy was off the charts last weekend when convicted felon Beanie Sigel lambasted parents at an antiviolence rally for not doing their jobs. Beanie Sigel? The same rapper whose State Property clothing line is notable for roomy, pistol-packing pockets?

"What kind of example is he setting," Jean-Paul asks, "when in his personal life he acts a fool?"

The reality is that celebrities can raise awareness, but they can't stop the killing. Well-intentioned Will Smith can parachute in for 24 hours to lead the annual march for peace, but he couldn't stop 68 more people from being gunned down since his July visit.

With so much at stake, it makes sense that youths who want to survive and succeed turn to the people whom they trust the most - their parents, their friends, their principal.

"We help each other," says Myra Allen, 17, who has her sights set on studying sports management at Pitt. "We're all a family at Ben Franklin. If you're hungry, I've got you. If you're scared to go someplace by yourself, call me up. That's just how we are."

To a person, each student praised the message of Johnson, not a celebrity but a youthful, energetic administrator who has made peace part of his school's mission statement.

There's a mural going up on the side of the school's building that is captioned, "When the city is at peace." That's too general for Johnson. He's having it changed to read, "When I am at peace."

"At the end of the day, it's up to us," he says. "We live in our neighborhoods. We can't continue to point a finger at someone for things we could be doing ourselves... . It is only when we're at peace with ourselves that the violence will stop."

Annette John-Hall can be reached via email at Visit her blog, Free Flow, at This article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Annette John-Hall

Friday, September 29, 2006

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