At first glance, it appears presidential: A private jet bound for swing states days before the election. A campaign staff. Hungry media. An omnipresent slogan, “Vote or Die.”
But there’s no candidate — just Sean “P. Diddy” Combs in all his hip-hop, hype-loving glory, putting in work for his nonpartisan organization Citizen Change.
The mastermind behind those “Vote or Die!” T-shirts is flying from New York to Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Miami on a three-day tour to inform young people and minorities that voting is important and, well, “sexy.”
The Associated Press hitched a ride on Combs’ jet — nicknamed Air Force Change — for the Milwaukee and Detroit legs of the tour. Here’s what went down:
8:46 a.m.: R&B star Mary J. Blige, who’ll be speaking alongside Combs, arrives at the airport flashing a hip-hop meets Jackie Onassis look with big sunglasses, a black-and-white petticoat and headband pulling back her long locks. Combs is nowhere to be seen.
9:18 a.m.: Boarding begins. The 52-seat rented jet is one big first-class section, more Hugh Hefner’s Big Bunny than President Bush’s Air Force One. There are comfy burgundy leather seats with brass accouterments, but the personal ashtrays on each armrest have been welded shut. Red, white and blue flags (no stars, just stripes) and Citizen Change posters add a patriotic touch.
10:08 a.m.: Combs arrives with a pillow and smaller-than-expected entourage, which includes burly bodyguards and a petite Maltese named Sophie. The dog resides in its own Louis Vuitton bag.
10:18 a.m.: Combs, who started Citizen Change earlier this year, strolls through the plane and greets everyone. He’s sporting a “Vote or Die!” T-shirt, of course, beneath a denim ensemble by Sean John, his personal fashion label.
Does he prefer to go by P., Puffy, Daddy or Diddy?
“Hi, I’m Sean,” he tells The Associated Press.
Extreme political makeover10:54 a.m.: Cruising altitude. The captain turns off the seat belt sign, although most of the members of the media have already begun prancing around the cabin. Combs is at the front of the plane, working on the speech he’ll give in Milwaukee.
“We wanted to do an extreme makeover of the election process,” Combs tells AP about the motivation behind the tour.
11:27 a.m. Puffy Air begins its descent into Milwaukee. “Entertainment Tonight” reporter Maria Menounos and her camera crew, who are also along for the ride, film an intro. The bubbly correspondent mentions something about Brad Pitt being at children’s hospital in Los Angeles.
12 noon: Six-vehicle motorcade arrives including five SUVs ... and a party bus. Tom Gast, an admitted non-Puffy fan and the plane’s pilot from New York to Milwaukee, eyes the media awaiting Combs’ exit from the jet.
“Even though I’m voting for Bush, I still made the flight as smooth as possible,” Gast reveals to the AP.
But sir, Combs is not endorsing either candidate. He says “Vote or Die!” isn’t about the candidates, it’s about the people.
“Kerry isn’t smart enough,” Combs later tells AP. “Instead of throwing a football around, he should take his butt into the inner-city and see how a young kid is going to school. And you don’t see Bush taking the time to go to BET or MTV. Nobody was talking to this community. I deal with them every day.”
12:29 p.m.: Combs and the motorcade arrive at the downtown Milwaukee Area Technical College. A group of fans have gathered outside temporary barricades, begging for Sean’s John Hancock.
“I love his music,” an autographless Sarah Vershowske, 18, says of Combs, who turns 35 on Nov. 4. “And he’s hot.”
12:55 p.m.: A mob of students is stuffed into the 1,800-seat Cooley Auditorium, many screaming and holding up “Vote or Die!” signs while perched atop the theater-style seats. Before Combs emerges on the stage, MATC President Darnell E. Cole repeatedly warns the throng: “Get off the chairs.”
1:03 p.m.: The man enters to some “Vote or Die!” chants and “Puffy, I love you!” screams. Combs introduces Blige to even more screaming.
“I’m gonna get real raw,” Blige warns. “I saw ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ and I’m about to go there. I’m not afraid because God has taught me one man can change history.”
Blige’s emotional anti-war, pro-woman speech elicits a range of emotions from the crowd. Some yell “Amen!”; others cry. She says her father went to Vietnam and “came home a nut. And he abused my mother. He abused us through my mother. And she abused us because my father abused her.” The “Children of the Ghetto” singer blamed the government for brainwashing her parents.
“I don’t think I want to benefit from a robbery of innocent poor people’s blood who did not deserve to die the same way you do not deserve to die today,” Blige says. “But that’s what will happen if we do not vote. We will die.”
‘Bum rush those polls’1:12 p.m.: After Blige’s speech, Combs addresses the crowd. He’s less emotional, more focused.
“I want y’all to bum rush those polls if you’re registered, and let them know we have the power,” Combs says. “So that the next election that comes around, instead of them speaking to the NRA, AARP, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, they’ll be speaking to you, the forgotten ones, the one they turned their backs on.”
2:10 p.m.: Combs arrives back at the tarmac; Air Force Change isn’t ready to depart for Detroit yet. So, followed by his 50-person entourage, he walks across the four-lane street to Amelia’s, a restaurant and lounge specializing in pizza and beer.
Waitress and Combs fan Tabitha Maki’s jaw practically drops when she sees the hip-hopster enter the eatery. “I have all of his CDs,” Maki, 23, tells the AP.
But Diddy declined to dine. The plane was ready. “There was no fried chicken,” Combs joked to the AP. The motorcade arrives to drive everyone back across the street.
2:29 p.m.: Back on Air Force Change, field director James Gee, who helps Combs write his speeches and usually works on real political campaigns, hasn’t slept since yesterday.
“One of the reasons Citizen Change has been so successful is because Puffy does real talk,” he tells AP before crashing for a catnap. “He doesn’t have an ax to grind. He’s not against nobody. He’s not for nobody except the people.”
4:22 p.m.: The plane lands in Detroit. Combs is still energetic. On the ride to the next rally, the man who once arrived at the MTV Video Music Awards in an 18-wheeler, beams about his latest mode of transportation.
“My plane has a lot of flavor. Later on, we’re going to have mimosas,” he promises.
7:12 p.m.: Combs and Blige join actor Leonardo DiCaprio on an outdoor stage at Wayne State University. The three address the behemoth crowd, more fitting for a concert than a political rally. Together, the trio looks like a sort of surreal, postmodern presidential campaign commercial — Combs as president, DiCaprio as vice president and Blige as first lady.
Although Combs says he has no political aspirations, it’s the sort of image he sees on the horizon.
“There will be an opportunity to have a woman president, a black president, a Latino president, a gay president,” he old AP. “Anything’s possible if a community flexes its power. That won’t happen overnight though. We have to stay focused. We have to grow our power within politics to be able to break down those barriers.”