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Remembering the time David Bowie called out MTV for not playing black artists.

A 1983 interview with David Bowie helped bring attention to the network's lack of diversity.

Early MTV had a major problem: It was almost exclusively white.

As it set out to revolutionize the music industry, MTV hit a few major bumps in the road, which included accusations of racism for the lack of diverse artists on the network in its early years.

"There was a shortage of Black videos by urban artists," MTV co-founder Les Garland told Jet Magazine in 2006. "The success of this AOR (album-oriented rock) format in radio certainly had its influence on MTV. But, there were no music videos. They weren't being made. We had nothing to pick from."


But that wasn't entirely true.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for MTV.

Artists like Rick James and Michael Jackson were making music videos, but having a really rough time getting airplay.

And while MTV would eventually premiere both Jackson's "Thriller" and "Billie Jean" videos in 1983, it was the network's initial reluctance to play his "Billie Jean" video that led to Walter Yetnikoff, then-president of Jackson's label CBS records, threatening to pull the entire label's catalog.

"I said to MTV, 'I'm pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I'm not going to give you any more videos. And I'm going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don't want to play music by a black guy," Yetnikoff recounted.

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images.

Rick James, who at the time was trying to get the network to play his video for "Super Freak," said in frustration, "I'm a crusader without an army. 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."

That's when David Bowie stepped in.

During a 1983 interview with MTV veejay Mark Goodman, David Bowie asked a simple, important question.

R. Serge Denisoff describes the heated exchange in his book Inside MTV.

Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images.

"Why are there practically no blacks on the network?" Bowie asked Goodman during one of their interviews.

Goodman was stunned, not expecting the question. "We seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play on MTV," said Goodman in response. "The company is thinking in terms of narrowcasting."

"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?"

Not about to take that for an answer, Bowie pushed the issue. "There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I'm surprised aren't being used on MTV."

"We have to try and do what we think not only what New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest," said Goodman. "Pick some town in the Midwest which would be scared to death by ... a string of black faces, or black music. We have to play music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly we're a rock and roll station."

"Don't you think it's a frightening predicament to be in?" offered Bowie in response.

"Yeah, but no less so here than in radio," said Goodman.

"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?"


Bowie's interview with Goodman was a great example of how to be an ally.

Black artists, as James said, were subject to some major pushback if they spoke out on MTV's lack of diversity. They held no leverage, and they had reason to fear that their careers would take a hit if the network decided to blacklist them.

Bowie and wife, Iman, seen here in 2006. Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.

So Bowie did what an ally should: He used his platform and his privilege to advocate for others without making it about himself (that last part is important).

Maybe it wasn't Bowie's interview with Goodman that led to more black artists on MTV, and maybe it wasn't Yetnikoff's threat of a CBS boycott that did it; maybe the how doesn't really matter as much as the what.

In the end, MTV helped launch the careers of prominent black artists, and the shift away from early exclusionary policies may have been the best decision the network ever made.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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