By Tiffani Greenaway
Over the course of his career, we’ve seen Sean Combs go through a few name changes. In the 90’s, we knew him as Puffy and Puff Daddy, the mastermind behind Bad Boy Records. The 00’s gave birth to P. Diddy (after he was acquitted on charges stemming from a nightclub shooting), Diddy, then back to P. Diddy (after being sued by UK producer Richard “Diddy” Dearlove), followed by Sean John (in connection with his clothing line).
While celebrating his 48th birthday in Mexico, the mogul announced that he’d no longer answer to any of those names.
Yasin Bey. Metta World Peace. Snoop Lion. Chad Ochocinco. It’s not the first time a celeb (or even Diddy) has changed his name. While the mogul later posted a video to Instagram saying that he was “only joking,” taking on a new name can have serious meaning–whether it’s a marketing ploy, a political statement, or a spiritual reawakening.
“I want to bury Snoop Dogg, and become Snoop Lion,” Calvin Broadus told journalists after returning from a visit to a Rastfarian temple in Jamaica. “I didn’t know that until I went to the temple, where the High Priest asked me what my name was, and I said, ‘SnoopDogg.’ And he looked me in my eyes and said, ‘No more. You are the light; you are the lion.’ From that moment on, it’s like I had started to understand why I was there.”
In Alex Haley’s historical novel, Roots, Kunta Kinte is stripped of the name bestowed upon him and forced to answer to “Toby.”
Scholar Henry Lois Gates references Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, saying, “changing a surname was an attempt by a former slave to gain some psychological distance from a harsh master, specifically, or from the harsh realities of the nightmare of slavery, generally…taking a new name–a thoroughly American practice…reflects an attempt at self fashioning or reinvention. Adopting a new name…erases the past and dramatically forges a new identity…as a new person, a free person.”
Generations of African Americans have reconnected themselves to their heritage by giving up their “slave names,” and reclaiming the identities that were stolen from our ancestors–but getting friends, and especially family, to accept your new identity can be a challenge. In the 1988 classic, “Coming to America,” Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy’s barbershop characters discuss boxer Cassius Clay’s chosen name, Muhammad Ali.
Saul: A man has the right to change his name to whatever he wants to change it to. And if a man wants to be called Muhammad Ali, godammit this is a free country, you should respect his wishes, and call the man Muhammad Ali!
Morris: His mamma call him Clay, imma call him Clay.
Clarence: Ha-ha-ha! That’s right! That’s right! He gonna always be Clay to me. I don’t give a f–k what he change his name to. He is Clay! He Clay to me. I say Clay.
Ali himself spoke on his 1964 name change, saying, “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
In this era, when people are choosing to reaffirm themselves–through new names, new pronouns,–it’s important that we respect whatever identity they choose.
Don’t deny someone’s name. Don’t rob them of their identity. Respect them. Acknowledge them.