David Bowie Asked MTV Why They Weren’t Playing Black Artists in 1983: WATCH

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David Bowie’s impact on music and pop culture is indelible and as we approach the fifth anniversary of his death (Bowie died of liver cancer on January 10, 2016), stories around the legend recirculate. Perhaps the most potent particularly this year, following a year where America faced hard truths about racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings, is when Bowie held an MTV VJ’s feet to the fire when asking him why the net work doesn’t play more Black artists.

This was in 1983.

The clip has been circulating Twitter and even has Bowie trending because of author Morgan Jenkins’ tweet of the interview.

According to the Washington Post, at the time of his death, “People are reflecting on the life and legacy of David Bowie — including the time he went on MTV and publicly shamed the network for its lack of diversity.

Jerkins tweeted: I love that clip because David Bowie told a white person exactly what needed to be said, that Black kids are a part of America too. Atta boy, Bowie.

Rock videos by white musicians dominated the fledgling cable network’s airwaves in 1983 when Bowie sat down with veejay Mark Goodman as part of a press junket for “Let’s Dance,” Bowie’s massive commercial success. “It occurred to me that, having watched MTV over the last few months, that it’s a solid enterprise and it’s got a lot going for it,” Bowie said in the interview. “I’m just floored by the fact that there are … so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?”

MTV grew out of the world of FM radio, and former radio executives working for the cable channel “perpetuated the segregated playlists they worked with at radio,” said Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution.

Bowie’s exchange with Goodman is recounted in R. Serge Denisoff’s “Inside MTV.” According to the book, Bowie asked: “Why are there practically no blacks on the network?”

Goodman, who merely introduced the clips and announced the concert dates, explained, “We seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play on MTV. The company is thinking in terms of narrowcasting.” Bowie pressed on. “There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t being used on MTV.”
Goodman, placed in the highly uncomfortable position of defending a format totally beyond his control, echoed the company’s demographic policy: “We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest. Pick some town in the Midwest which would be scared to death by … a string of other black faces, or black music.” He went on, “We have to play music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly we’re a rock-and-roll station.”
The exchange got hotter. Bowie asked: “Don’t you think it’s a frightening predicament to be in?” The intimidated veejay resorted to the radio analogy, “Yeah, but no less so here than in radio.”
The British singer pounced on the reply: “Don’t say, ‘Well, it’s not me, it’s them.’ Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair … to make the media more integrated?”

In 2019 The Guardian said of the The Street: Marketed as a tale of vice and violence in Harlem, Ann Petry’s novel The Street sold more than a million copies – and gave a voice to black women. Petry laces through the story shrewd social commentary about the relentless nature of poverty and its effect on black women in particular. She addresses stereotypes one by one and crushes them underfoot.

The Street Novel by Ann Petry

One treasured figure in the American myth is that of the mammy, the black domestic worker who cares for her employer’s family with duty and delight. Through Lutie, Petry asks what the real cost of this arrangement is to the women whose job it is to care. As a live-in maid, Lutie is only able to see her own husband and child a few days a month. Looking back, she feels like a fool. “She’d cleaned another woman’s house and looked after another woman’s child while her own marriage went to pot.”

What hope is there for Lutie, surrounded by people so beaten down by racism and poverty that they are willing to destroy one another for a scrap of comfort? …. This is a story that is dark, but not depressing; disturbing, yet intriguing. How can a novel’s social criticism be so unflinching and clear, yet its plot moves like a house on fire? How can characters flirt with type, while remaining singular and unforgettable? These are questions to which there are no answers. There are no stunts here, nor sleights of hand. This novel, like real life, is rife with seeming contradictions and layered with complex truths. And like the human experience, this book is riddled with pain, but somehow powered by hope.

A lens powered by hope informs Bowie’s interrogation of the industry.

Bowie wasn’t the only music star taking MTV to task. Rick James was the most vocal critical of MTV during this time. As described by Jet magazine in 2006, James, who was black, accused the network of “blatant racism”:

“I’m a crusader without an army,” James said. “All these black artists claim they’re behind me, but when it’s time to make a public statement, you can’t find them. … They’re going to let me do all the rapping and get into trouble and then they’ll reap the benefits.”
Other artists did, however, agree with James and spoke up. During an on-air interview in 1983, music icon David Bowie suddenly asked, “Why are there practically no black artists on the network?” Bowie, the husband of model Iman, who gave the late Luther Vandross his first professional break in 1974 as a backup singer, left VJ Mark Goodman fishing for words.
The difference? In Bowie, Tannenbaum said, “”Here is someone who is on MTV constantly, who was shaming the network.”

Bowie’s friendship with Nile Rodgers also appears to have played a role. Rodgers, a legendary musician who co-produced “Let’s Dance,” said:

David listened to me. I remember once explaining to him how, for me, as a black artist, it was very difficult for me to get hits, because we had fewer radio stations to expose our music. So to get attention, a technique of mine was I always started my songs with the chorus: “Ahhh, freak out!” and “We are family!” And then, of course, there’s “Let’s Dance.” So when David gave me this award – for the ARChive of Contemporary Music – he said: “To my friend, Nile Rodgers: the only man who could make me start a song with a chorus.”
Eventually, Michael Jackson’s unparalleled success and his hit song “Billie Jean” would transform MTV.
But, WaPo concludes: “Among the many other significant accomplishments in his life, Bowie was a great advocate for black music and black musicians,” Tannenbaum said. “This confrontation with Mark Goodman isn’t an outlier in Bowie’s career. It’s something he did pretty often.”