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.
When MTV launched in 1981, it had only a couple hundred music videos in its library and few advertisements to fill air time. "On the occasions that MTV was playing black artists, it was only because they had sort of run out of videos," Tannenbaum said Monday.
Bowie's exchange with Goodman is recounted in R. Serge Denisoff's Inside MTV. According to that 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.' (Also Read: David Bowie, Always and Forever. Here Are Some Beautiful Tweets About Him)
"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 'n' 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?'"
When MTV did respond to charges of racism, Tannenbaum said, the company's reasoning was 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."
The other rationale, echoed in the Bowie interview, was that "MTV was a rock n' roll network and in their minds rock n' roll did not include black artists, which made sense to them but didn't make sense to many people, including David Bowie," Tannenbaum said.
"And when Bowie had the opportunity to bravely and unselfishly confront MTV about their hypocrisy, he did it."
Goodman reflected on the exchange in I Want My MTV, saying that Bowie "asked me why there were so few black faces on MTV. I was in an odd position, because I couldn't diss the network. (Also Read: 10 Defining Moments of David Bowie's Career)
"So when Bowie started in with me, I tried to explain the rock format idea. And Bowie was not having it.
"I was fumpfering around for something to say, and the interview felt like an eternity. The fact was, J.J. (Jackson) and I had been talking about this. He pointed out to me that he was initially down with the rock format, but once MTV started to play Spandau Ballet and ABC - basically, white R&B acts - he felt there was no reason not to play black R&B acts."
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."
"Of course, some just thought Rick James is sour grapes because he can't get his videos on MTV," Tannenbaum said.
The optics worked differently for Bowie, a famous white musician beloved by the network and who wielded "influence and power."
"Here is someone who is on MTV constantly, who was shaming the network," Tannenbaum said.
A friendship with Nile Rodgers also appears to have played a role in the comments Bowie made on MTV about its mostly white playlist.
Rodgers, a renowned musician who co-produced "Let's Dance," said Monday:
"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.'"
MTV's color barrier was broken by Michael Jackson's stardom; the network was essentially forced into playing Billie Jean, which became a massive success and helped bolster the struggling network.
As for Bowie's broadside, it did prompt some media coverage, but it came well before the days of social media and the Internet. Had it happened in today's world, the video surely would have gone viral, perhaps even forcing immediate change.
But that Bowie was asking such questions wasn't out of character.
"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."
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