Watch David Bowie Grill MTV About Its Enormous Lack of Diversity in 1983
Fans around the world have flooded social media with images, songs, and videos commemorating the genre-traversing musician and actor David Bowie, who died Sunday at 69 after an 18-month-long battle with cancer. While Bowie might be better recognized for his glam rock persona Ziggy Stardust or his role in the fantasy movie Labyrinth, it's a lesser-known clip that critics are championing as a crucial aspect of his legacy as an artist and activist.
In a 1983 interview with MTV, Bowie turns the tables on reporter Mark Goodman to grill him about the youth-oriented network's lack of ethnic diversity. "It's a solid enterprise, and it's got a lot going for it," Bowie starts off. "I'm just floored by the fact that there's so few black artists featured in it. Why is that?"
Goodman struggles to answer the question about the then-two-year-old cable network, which was founded on a heavy rotation of mostly white artists, including the Buggles, Pat Benatar, Rod Stewart, and the Pretenders. "We want to play artists that seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play for MTV," Goodman offered, blaming the issue on market and regional preferences.
A transcript of the interview tweeted by British TV news anchor Charlene White early Monday morning was retweeted thousands of times and garnered social media shares by the likes of rapper Ice-T. On Monday afternoon, MTV made the video available on YouTube.
There are many reasons to love David Bowie. Here's one. 1982: challenging MTV on their refusal to play black music: pic.twitter.com/0ku30wccVG— Charlene White (@CharleneWhite) January 11, 2016
In it, Goodman argued that the network was responsible for programming not just in the major coastal cities but also in small towns across America that "will be scared to death by Prince, which we're playing, or a string of other black faces and black music." Prince was among the small number of black artists whose videos got airtime on the network, but Bowie alleged that these videos were only shown during the early hours of the morning, not during prime time.
He was not the first artist to make such a claim. Rick James publicly slammed the network in its early days for not playing videos by black artists, MTV cofounder Bob Pittman recalled in the 2011 book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. "All of us realized, 'God, we'd better work extra hard to find some black videos,'" Pittman said. According to the book, it took Michael Jackson's massively popular "Thriller" video, released on MTV in 1983, to transform the network into a cultural behemoth, and it "effectively ended the policy of playing only rock artists."
While there's still a long way to go toward recognizing musicians of color in the industry—just two of the 20 artists nominated in the Grammy's top four categories last year were minorities—much has changed at MTV since Bowie launched his interrogation. Reality shows such as Teen Mom, The Real World, and Catfish have largely replaced music videos on MTV as streaming services like Vevo and YouTube offer free clips of artists singing and dancing that can be viewed by anyone with Internet access.
In recent years, the network has been raising issues of race among its young viewers. MTV's ongoing research project "Look Different" explores attitudes about hidden racial biases, and last year's documentary White People aimed to start conversations about discrimination.