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Music

David Bowie nailed systemic racism and white privilege in the music industry – almost 40 years ago

Josh Milton June 16, 2020
David Bowie gave a tutorial on allyship in a 1983 interview touching off racism in music. (Screen capture via YouTube)

David Bowie gave a tutorial on allyship in a 1983 interview touching off racism in music. (Screen capture via YouTube)

David Bowie, the fiercely forward-looking musician, was futzing around with his sock when he delivered a brutal broadside against MTV’s lack of Black representation.

Bowie called out the then two-year-old network about the way it rarely, if ever, played Black artists during primetime slots.

In a stale hotel room, the kind where a wet dishcloth has more personality, the artist gracefully asked video jockey Mark Goodman why a network branded as a bulletin board of music would omit Black content creators.

In a resurfaced clip, he went on to soberly suggest that MTV, clogged with the Billy Joels of the world, was silencing Black musicians because they were “scared to death” of them.

David Bowie challenged MTV on why it only airs white artists. 

Bowie’s barbed words against MTV, filmed in 1983, was recalled by many Twitter users in the turbulent throes of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Always the gentleman, the singer began his takedown of MTV with a compliment. He said the music broadcaster had a “solid enterprise” with “a lot going for it”.

But then, with silvery candour, he said: “I’m just floored by the fact that there’s so few Black artists featured on it, why is that?”

As he sparred with Goodman, Bowie, in a blocky grey suit, watched as Goodman attempted to justify why the channel was silencing and erasing Black artists, saying that it was trying to move its programming “in that direction”.

“We want to play artists that fit into what we want to play for MTV,” he added, noting that MTV leaders were “narrowcasting”, which is when programmers target specific groups of people, rather than the broad population.

“That’s evident,” Bowie cooly rejoined.

“The only few Black artists that one does see are on about 2:30 in the morning to around six, very few are featured predominantly during the day.

“There seem to be a lot of Black artists making very good music videos that I’m surprised aren’t on MTV.”

Goodman, shuffling, perhaps sweating in paper-clipped talking points and filter coffee, explained that all viewers would have their own unique perceptions of MTV’s programming based on what they tune in for and actually see.

Bowie dealt a blowback that a lot of Black artists were creating incredible music that Black stations were broadcasting. Why was MTV not?

“We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate but also Poughkeepsie or Midwest,” Goodman continued.

“Pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince — which we’re playing — or a string of other Black faces.”

“Isn’t that interesting?” Bowie responded.

In the rest of the exchange, archived on YouTube, Goodman observed that more white artists were playing so-called Black music, which, Goodman said, made it more palatable to MTV’s predominantly white listeners, and that different music means different things to people.

But Bowie reeled Goodman back, subtly noting — without saying explicitly — that Goodman had missed his point. That music matters to Black people, too, and the erasure of Black voices was “rampant” across the US, leaving it up to white industry leaders to accept their institutional racism, act less like gatekeepers and better amplify non-white singers and songwriters.

After Goodman finished, seemingly hearing everything he needed to hear, a defiant Bowie slipped a smile and said, “I understand your point of view,” before bristling with laughter.

Twitter users praise David Bowie for an important lesson on allyship from nearly… four decades ago.

Thousands of users applauded Bowie for standing firm in his solidarity with Black artists, with some recalling watching the interview when it originally aired and the reignited resonance his words have today.

More: black lives matter, David Bowie, MTV

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