David Bowie led — never followed. From wearing 50 shades of eyeshadow and flowing frocks to creating a string of alternate personas for his relentless genre-hopping, to branching out into acting and musical theater, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame icon who died on Sunday at age 69 forever had one eye on the future.
That included the time in 1983, during the early days of MTV, when the network sat down with a then-resurgent Bowie to talk about his hit album, Let’s Dance. But before VJ Mark Goodman could dig into his sheaf of questions, Bowie had a few of his own.
“It occurred to me having watched MTV over the last few months that it’s a solid enterprise,” Bowie said of the then-two-year-old network, which had a number of his music videos in heavy rotation. Dressed in a natty suit and absentmindedly picking at lint on his socks, though, Bowie clearly had more than faint praise on his mind. “It’s got a lot going for it. I’m just floored by the fact that there’s so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?”
Bowie had been writing songs with R&B great Luther Vandross for a decade at that point, as well as steadily working with a room full of amazing black session players, including bassist Willie Weeks, backup singer Ava Cherry and drummer Tony Thompson and Let’s Dance producer/Chic bassist Nile Rodgers. It’s Rodgers who is credited with alerting Bowie to the lack of black artists on MTV, a situation Bowie confronted the first chance he was able.
With Bowie offering up what can only be described as a withering stare, Goodman explained that the network was trying to “move in that direction” but that the company was thinking of “narrow-casting” in keeping black artists off its airwaves.
“That’s evident,” Bowie responded, noting that the few black artists that were visible were on at “2:30 in the morning.” It was a bold move for Bowie — who wore his love of American soul and R&B proudly on his sleeve during his 1975 Young Americans album and tour.
Forever a vanguard interested in pushing boundaries — of music, sexuality, persona — Bowie was unafraid to risk his pioneering music videos being dumped from the network’s playlist in exchange for speaking out on what he perceived to be an unfair racial bias in their programming.
“There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t being used on MTV,” he told the VJ. (Later that year, Michael Jackson’s legendary “Billie Jean” was added into heavy rotation on the channel, effectively breaking down the race barrier on the network and paving the way for a number of black artists to get airtime.)
The conversation got more awkward after that. Click on the video above to hear the entire exchange.