Since David Bowie died of cancer on Sunday at his London home, countless tributes honoring the life and legacy of the iconic British musician have circulated online. And rightfully so – not only was David Bowie a legendary singer-songwriter and innovator, he was an iconoclast that never backed down from challenging the injustices wherever they occurred. One such time occurred in 1983 when Bowie confronted MTV for their refusal to play music videos made by black musicians.
The Independent recounted the interview by posting the video along with a transcript of the exchange between David Bowie and MTV veejay Mark Goodman. Bowie sat down for the interview as part of his press junket for “Let’s Dance.”
“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. “I’m just floored by the fact that there are … so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?”
Mark Goodman, who clearly hadn’t expected that line of questioning, explained, “We seem to be doing music that fit into what we want to play on MTV. The company is thinking in terms of narrowcasting.”
An unimpressed David 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.”
Taken aback, Goodman resorted to defending the company’s demographic policy by saying, “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. We have to play music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly we’re a rock-and-roll station.”
Of course, this reasoning sounded hollow to Bowie, who asked, “Don’t you think it’s a frightening predicament to be in?” To which Goodman replied, “Yeah, but no less so here than in radio.”
Bowie, who profoundly influenced popular culture and fashion throughout his five-decade career, didn’t let up on his incisive attack, and replied, “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?”
Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, revealed in his book that MTV had only a couple hundred music videos in its entire library when it launched in 1981.
“On the occasions that MTV was playing black artists, it was only because they had sort of run out of videos,” Tannenbaum said.
According to Rob, MTV responded to charges of racism at the time by saying that “black artists aren’t really making a lot of videos” — which was kind of true but also completely beside the point. Record companies weren’t giving budgets to black artists to make videos because they knew MTV wouldn’t play those videos.”
David Bowie, 69, died on Sunday after an 18-month secret battle with cancer. Three days before his death, the late “Ziggy Stardust” singer celebrated his 69th birthday as well as the release of his 25th (and last) album, Blackstar. Washington Post described the album as the “most extreme album of his entire career.”
And here’s the kicker: according to The Telegraph, David’s last release, Lazarus, was released by the singer as a “parting gift” for his fans all over the world. The title of the track itself is indicative of the poignant message Bowie wanted to leave in his wake. The track opened with the words: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven!”
David Bowie changed the world in more ways than one and he continues to do so even after his death. How has David Bowie and his music affected your life? Feel free to post your tributes in the comments section below.
[Image via Associated Press]