Today, the world learned of the passing of one of music’s greatest pioneers. David Bowie succumbed to his battle with cancer Sunday night at the age of 69. Bowie was an artist who challenged norms not only creatively but as a business. The way Bowie crafted his songs would reverberate throughout popular music for a number of decades.
His hit songs like “Let’s Dance,” “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “Starman,” “Modern Love,” “Heroes,” and “Under Pressure” redefined the constructs of popular music. His alter-ego of “Ziggy Stardust” took him from being not only just a talented musician, but to a one-of-a-kind superstar.
But what may be more understated than all of that, is the British artist’s lasting impact on black music. In 1982, the face of music on television was still very rare, but at that time it was very white. Bowie, aware of that, challenged the growing juggernaut of MTV to change.
MTV, at the time, had sparingly played music from artists like Prince, Donna Summer and Michael Jackson, but rejected such iconic videos like Rick James’ “Super Freak.” MTV’s original head of talent and acquisition, Carolyn B. Baker, who was black, had questioned why the definition of music had to be so narrow, as had a few others outside the network. “The party line at MTV was that we weren’t playing black music because of the ‘research,’ said Baker years later. “But the research was based on ignorance … we were young, we were cutting edge. We didn’t have to be on the cutting edge of racism.”
In an interview with former MTV VJ Mark Goodman, Bowie challenged the VJ, as well as MTV as a corporation, on their stance. “There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t being used on MTV,” Bowie said while on the air.
Goodman, toeing the company line, stated the following:
“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,” said Goodman. “We have to play music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly we’re a rock and roll station.”
“Don’t you think it’s a frightening predicament to be in?” Bowie asked.
“Yeah, but no less so here than in radio,” replied Goodman, which led to a swift response from the rock legend. “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?”
Close to a full year later, Michael Jackson finally broke the color barrier amidst pressure from CBS Records to ban all of their artists’ work from appearing on MTV. “Billie Jean” aired alongside Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” in heavy rotation and the rest, as they say, is history.
Moreover, Bowie had a lasting influence on some of the most iconic records in black music. Puff Daddy & The Family’s “Been Around the World” sampled Bowie’s hit single “Let’s Dance,” while Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice, Baby” sampled Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads” and JAY Z’s classic diss track “Takeover” both sampled Bowie’s “Fame.”
Not only did Bowie influence many black artists, Bowie himself never hid from black music’s influence, even into his dying days. Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, is not only a parting gift to his fans, as the singer knew the fate of his mortality, but was also inspired by one of Hip-Hop’s current young kings.
“We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record,” Longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti explained to Rolling Stone about Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly. “He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.”
“He always did what he wanted to do,” Visconti wrote today, eulogizing his partner and friend. “And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.”
“I knew for a year this was the way it would be,” Visconti continued in his note. “I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”
Bowie is survived by his wife, supermodel Iman, and their daughter Alexandria “Lexi” Zahra Jones.
David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 11, 2016
In this 1983 interview with Mark Goodman, David Bowie criticizes MTV for not playing enough music videos by black artists.
Posted by MTV News on Monday, January 11, 2016
Photo Credit: Columbia