The late David Bowie wasn’t just known for his hit music. He was also a global citizen known for his progressive attitudes about race, sexuality, and personal identity, and his enduring work with various philanthropies like Live Aid, which supports HIV/AIDS research, Break the Cycle, which helps women escape dangerous domestic violence situations, and Keep a Child Alive, which protects African children from AIDS, among many others.
So it should come as no surprise that he was not afraid to call out MTV for its early racism. In the new A&E biography I Want My MTV, there is footage of an unaired interview between Bowie and one of MTV’s original VJs, Mark Goodman, where Bowie takes the network to task for not featuring more Black artists. The interview is over 35 years old but could not be more relevant today. Here’s what you need to know about it.
Artists Objected to MTV Only Featuring A Few Black Musicians
The issue started when Rick James was weighing in on MTV on Nightline with anchor Ted Koppel. He said at the time, “Out of the 65 videos that they’ll show a day, there may only be three black acts on there.”
Koppel tried to play Devil’s advocate by asking, “But what if they didn’t want to appeal to that audience? Bloomingdales has its market, Nightline has its market,” to which James responded, “Then they shouldn’t call themselves music television. Call yourselves white television or something.”
At the time, the network refused to play James’ “Super Freak” video, with one talent rep saying in the documentary that it was because the video “should have been shown in a strip club. He was a pimp with a bunch of girls.”
They also said that some Black artists were being shown: Eddie Graham, Musical Youth, Herbie Hancock. But Fab 5 Freddy, who would go on to host Yo! MTV Raps said, “I agreed with Rick James. America is a country built on racist principles. It was kind of like television apartheid if you will.”
MTV argued that it was because they were playing rock ‘n roll and these Black artists were R&B. But media commentator and scholar Todd Boyd said that MTV was perpetrating a disservice on the music industry that was even worse than what radio stations were doing.
“It didn’t start with MTV. Radio dials at the time were segregated. So MTV simply reflected a trend, but now it’s on television, so the racial implications of it are that much more profound because not only are you listening to the music, you’re looking at it as well,” said Boyd.
Enter David Bowie
But apparently, what really got through to MTV was David Bowie. In an interview that never made it to air, he flat-out asked Mark Goodman what was going on with MTV not playing Black artists.
“It occurred to me, having watched MTV over the last few months, there are so few black artists featured on there. Why is that? … There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t used on MTV,” said Bowie.
Goodman responded, “We want to play artists that seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play for MTV … We have to play the music that we think an entire country is going to like. We’re a rock ‘n roll station … The Isley Brothers mean something to me, but what does it mean to a 17-year-old?”
To which Bowie issued an impressive rejoinder in, “Well, I’ll tell you what maybe the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye mean to a Black 17-year-old. Surely he’s part of America as well.”
Goodman then tried to blame it on middle America, saying that they have to think of people in “Poughkeepsie or the Midwest” and you only have to “pick some town in the Midwest that will be scared to death of Prince, which we’re playing or a string of other Black faces and Black music.” He also said they “can only teach a little bit at a time.”
But MTV finally realized they should be courting Black artists and so the network began going after Michael Jackson, whose videos for “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” “changed the game,” according to Boyd.
And for the A&E biography, Goodman says that if he regrets anything from his career, it’s what he said to Bowie in that interview.
“My words came out wrong and it sounded not at all like what I meant. I don’t have a lot of regrets. That’s probably the only one. It’s just a terrible moment,” says Goodman.
I Want My MTV airs Tuesday, September 8 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on A&E.