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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.

Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

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