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House of '98

Diddy’s White Party kicked in the door, announcing ‘we up in here’

From 1998 until 2009, his White Parties hopped from one exclusive location to the next with a strict all-white dress code

“The people in The Hamptons thought the first party was the end of the world.” — Steven Gaines on P. Diddy’s White Party from his book, Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons

Was it? Was Diddy’s Labor Day party in 1998 in the mostly white, wealthy enclave of the Hamptons, New York, the end of the world? Was this raucous and luxurious display of hip-hop party culture, black culture and white celebrities eating and drinking at the Veuve Clicquot and Chandon founts of black wealth a type of apocalypse?

This new black money was not interested in sequestering itself in the previous vacation and summer homes of the black elite of generations past. Highland Beach, Maryland; Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts; even Sag Harbor, New York, lacked the luxury and hallmarks of elitism that this burgeoning class of black wealth desired. This burgeoning class of black wealth that Diddy helmed felt at home in both the boardroom and the Bed-Stuy reggae club in Brooklyn, New York, and desired to mingle with businesswoman Martha Stewart and actor Ashton Kutcher in their enclaves. They had the George Jefferson ethos — they wanted to move on up and into the old White Anglo-Saxon Protestant communities of white wealth.

The White Party presented by P. Diddy at his East Hampton estate.

WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

However, they were not going to change their manners or replicate those of their white neighbors. This new black money in the form of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (aka Puff Daddy) dripped in swagger and braggadocio, and wanted you to know it. Diddy’s White Party signaled to the neighbors in the Hamptons that “we up in here,” acting like we want to act.

Five years after starting his record label Bad Boy Entertainment, Diddy had signed and worked with an illustrious list of artists such as Biggie Smalls, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin. Bad Boy Entertainment allowed him to straddle the streets and high society, moving in a black car from Harlem, New York, to the Hamptons and back again. The streets were never more vocal and vociferous than in the East Coast-West Coast beef that led to the assassination of Smalls in 1997 with Diddy himself in the truck on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Before the launching of his beverage empire of DeLéon Tequila and Ciroc Vodka, and one year after the release of his multiplatinum debut album, No Way Out, with “I’ll Be Missing You,” a tribute to the slain Smalls, 1998 found Diddy astride the entertainment and fashion industry with the start of his couture house, Sean Jean.

Diddy was Cecil B. Rhodes-ing the competition, straddling the map of commerce in America. Bad and boujee before the then-grammar-school-age Migos could spell bad and remix the word bourgeoisie into boujee.

Diddy was Cecil B. Rhodes-ing the competition, straddling the map of commerce in America. Bad and boujee before the then-grammar-school-age Migos could remix bourgeoisie into boujee. Funky and fastidious about it. On Sept. 7, 1998, in East Hampton, New York, on Hedges Banks Drive, Diddy’s White Party “kicked in the door, waving the four-four,” announcing this new era, this new mogul, this bridegroom cometh. This apocalypse.

Sean Combs (center) shares a photo with his children at his annual White Party.

WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

And Diddy wanted his apocalypse, his takeover all in white. As fashion historian Daniel Cole notes in The History of Modern Fashion: From 1850, white clothing, known as summer whites, became a popular manifestation of elitism, virtue and leisure beginning in the Victorian era, and gathered a tremendous amount of traction in the 20th century, where white clothes became a signal of wealth, exclusivity and even fantasy. Think Wimbledon. Think fashion spreads in Vanity Fair of models next to long-haired, white-haired dogs while sitting next to a fire on a beach. Think white plantation owners and scions of the industry from the Northeast yachting on the Chesapeake in late July. Think Truman Capote, writer of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, sitting by a pool with a notebook scribbling out names of Hollywood’s who’s who to invite to his Black and White Ball in 1966. Think Capote’s Black and White Ball in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel, 450 bottles of Taittinger champagne sweating beneath the tinkle of a chandelier.

Diddy’s co-opting of this tradition melds this notion of fantasy, wealth and leisure with blackness, which is both subversive and not subversive at all. The subversion is in the tethering of blackness and black people to concepts such as leisure and exclusivity, which normally are not the domain of blackness. For instance, if I asked what you think of when you hear the words “wealth” or “leisure,” you are more likely to think of President Donald Trump on a golf outing, ambling over an overly green piece of earth, rather than of Diddy descending out of a helicopter with the Declaration of Independence tucked beneath his arm, which he did in 2004 when he entered that year’s White Party in the Hamptons from the heavens.

Sean Combs (center) arrives at the annual Independence Day White Party at the PlayStation 2 Estate in Bridgehampton, New York.

AP Photo/Jennifer Szymaszek

From 1998 until 2009, Diddy’s White Parties hopped from one exclusive location to the next. East Hampton, Beverly Hills, California, and Saint-Tropez, France, were a few of the locations Diddy descended upon with his exclusive guest list, all-white dress code and white carpet runway that led into the lavishness of his nouveau riche remix of Jay Gatsby’s imagination.

Let’s stay here for a while, with this surreal and almost impossible image: a black man descending out of a helicopter with a copy of one of America’s founding documents beneath his arm. It’s a moment that I imagine in an unpublished novel by Ralph Ellison. I would be a poor poet and critic if I slipped this moment into the file folder marked absurd and left it there for the dust mites. It is a powerful image that anticipates and, in some ways, predicts Barack Obama’s presidency four years later, as well as calls back to Jack Johnson, the American boxer and heavyweight champion who was convicted of trafficking white women across state lines in 1912 for “immoral pleasures.” Though the white woman was his wife, a woman named Lucille Cameron. Johnson, like Diddy, was clutching one of America’s sacred and sacrosanct treasures.

In the brandishing of this iconic piece of paper, Diddy aligns himself with that cultural lineage and heritage of the founding fathers, the Mayflower and the mystique of the country’s creation myth, which means also aligning himself with the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow and countless other atrocities. Diddy’s White Party becomes a type of “constitutional convention,” wherein what is being legislated is not so much the laws of the land, but who constitutes an American. But not just any American, a founder, an aristocrat. Diddy’s White Party is him putting in his application.

Which might also be called a cult of the American dream. It is a misinterpretation and flattening of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, where we focus on the multicultural kumbaya moment where all the white and black children of the world hold hands in postracial harmony and elide or forget the call for reparations at the beginning of King’s speech, a call that has yet to be answered.

Because the guest lists at these White Parties reach across the aisle, office and couture house, bringing together the ’burbs, bank presidents, the bourgeoisie and the boujee, some would interpret this as a victory over the old evils of a segregated America. Rev. Al Sharpton appearing in a white tunic and baggy pants, Franklin in a white, wide-brimmed hat, rhinestone-studded, floor-length duster-style white coat, white chiffon top, white pants complete with a large rhinestone-studded Chanel purse — even the tips of Franklin’s toes painted white; all of this occurring while supermodels sit on white swings wearing white bikinis over a blue pool might appear as a type of paradise in 2004. The breezy, easy life of excellence. And hard work. But actually, it is a celebration of cultural elitism, a place and space that none of us could afford to get to nor would be welcome.

Aretha Franklin at Diddy’s White Party in 2004.

Walik Goshorn / MediaPunch /IPX

This type of paradise is the American dream. It is what we all secretly desire — to be among the rich folk without the funk of our credit card debt, car payments, payday loans, student loans, gas and electric bills. This is America without our elders, firmly tucked away and out of sight, without our sick, our shut-in. And, we’re all wearing white as if we’ve just entered heaven.

Diddy’s White Party becomes the escape we cannot afford but put away on layaway. The year 1998 was the end of a furious century — a century that began in a horse and buggy and ended in a rocket ship.

And the end of the century was not going down with a whimper: Y2K was less than two years away, and everyone expected computers to crash and bring down the world’s banking system. School shootings began to mar the middle American landscape, and parents began grappling with the notion that schools were no longer havens of safety. We were six years out from the last urban rebellions via the Los Angeles riots, which were not sequestered to just L.A., but made their way to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Newark, New Jersey. And with the O.J. Simpson trial having reached its clown-car-strapped-with-dynamite-crazy conclusion nearly two years before, the racial tension in America was no longer sequestered in its hills. It seemed to come out of its mountains, down out of the forest and rage all over the place.

And out of this turmoil, a flicker of white, a white flag of sorts in the guise of Diddy in an all-white outfit inviting a thousand or so guests to his house in the Hamptons for a party on the last possible date that one can wear white, Labor Day.

Maybe, it was the end of something and simultaneously the beginning of something else. An apocalypse that was simultaneously a creation myth. An America drunk on vodka and stumbling toward the edge of a pool.

Liner Notes

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Roger Reeves is the author of King Me. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and Princeton University. His second collection of poetry is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.