After praising D.C. Public Schools during the Emmys broadcast on Sept. 17, comedian, actor and film director Dave Chappelle was at the center of a media and public frenzy at Duke Ellington School of the Arts on Sept. 29. The public high school auditorium thundered with applause as Chappelle, 44, walked onstage dressed casually in a black hoodie and cargo pants to receive a symbolic key to the city from Mayor Muriel Bowser.
During the ceremony, Bowser called the Emmy-award-winning performer a “man who has made . . . lasting contributions to our cultural heritage and to humanity.”
Chappelle’s roots in the city and the surrounding metropolitan area run deep. He is a third-generation Washingtonian who spent part of his childhood in Silver Spring, Md. His mother, Yvonne Seon, is a former professor at Howard University, the University of Maryland, and Prince George’s County Community College.
As a Duke Ellington alum, graduating in 1991, Chappelle has said he began his standup career as a high school student in past interviews. While his career flourished from gigs at local comedy clubs to his megahit, politically incorrect comedy sketch show, his offscreen resume is equally impressive. He is a longtime philanthropist and has donated to causes such as Seeds of Peace International Camp, which connects emerging leaders from communities with social conflicts; singer Rihanna’s Diamond Ball fundraiser; and $50,000 to embattled Flint, Mich., in the wake of its water crisis.
Chappelle also has had a resounding impact on the Washington, D.C. comedy scene, according to popular local comedian Adrian Rodney, who frequently performs at the DC Improv. Rodney said he and other area comedians admire Chappelle’s ability to be a critically acclaimed humorist while also advocating for social justice and charitable causes.
“Chappelle being from D.C. helped local potential comedians know it’s possible to make it and be from the area,” said Rodney, 33. “I personally credit his stand up special, “Killing Me Softly,” at the Lincoln Center for getting me into comedy. It made my dream attainable. I also think it’s important for people in show business to give back to the community like Chappelle has done and use their talents to not only entertain, but also to empower.”
Chappelle said he hopes his notoriety will also influence students at his alma mater. He noted the impact Washington, D.C. and more specifically, Duke Ellington, had on his stardom. “When we went to school from 8:30 to 5, I’m not going to lie to you, I hated school,” he told the audience. “I didn’t understand what was happening, but years later when I had my own television show and I was working 16-hour days, it felt easy for me because I had school days longer than that.”
Earlier this month Chappelle received his first Emmy for the “Saturday Night Live” monologue he delivered in November 2016. During his acceptance speech, Chappelle shouted out the D.C. Public School system, which set off a Twitter firestorm and trending hashtag. “All right, now I’m going to read this teleprompter,” Chappelle joked during the awards ceremony. ‘Shout out to D.C. Public Schools, here we go.”
Duke Ellington recently underwent a $171 million, three-year renovation to include a state-of-the-art dance and music studio, an 850-seat auditorium, performance hall and outdoor terrace.
“I want you guys to have this,” Chappelle said as he donated his recently won Emmy to the school. “Just so you know that even though the odds are widely against you, this can happen for you if you guys just stay true to yourselves. So, this is the people’s Emmy and every once in a while, just take a look at it and just know I started earning this Emmy at this school.”