Be Like David Bowie

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

In 1983, David Bowie sat down to an interview with Mark Goodman of MTV. The interview went well, from what I've gathered, until they reached the end when David Bowie asked a question of his own.

"I'm floored by the fact that so few black artists are featured [on your network]. Why is that?"

Goodman, who was essentially just the messenger, stumbled through a series of half-excuses, non-answers, and deflective accusations.

It was a powerful moment, and one that proved seminal in MTV's change from a rock music channel (meaning "whites only") to a pop music channel (meaning "more reflective of America").

Surely, we all know (do we?) that Michael Jackson's label famously refused to promote any other artist on the network if they didn't play his videos, and thus we had Michael Jackson as the first black artist on MTV primetime. But it was Bowie, a few months before, who threw the first stone. In other words, he gave voice to the voiceless, and made it all right for others in his position to stand behind him.

Here he was: a white man of tremendous talent and privilege, advocating for a group of people he had no obvious connection to.

I desperately search for that kind of bravery again today.

"Why is that?"

In modern times, it seems that some media companies have gotten remarkably good at answering Bowie's question, without ever being held accountable for it. It's answered with charts and graphs, under funded diversity departments, and half-hearted depictions of the gay/black/Asian best friends (my bread and butter... hire me please!). In a way, they've been able to control the voice of the voiceless and feel as if they need to do no more.

The excuse, it always seems, is that Americans don't WANT to hear from those on the margins. That we only want what we can immediately identify with, and we only seek out people who outwardly appear to be just like us. In other words, the majority wants to only see the majority.

Aside from insulting the intelligence of every person who consumes media, it is just a flat-out wrong way of thinking. It completely ignores the fact that, say, the highest grossing film in America features a black and female protagonist. Or that our most popular musicians are females and minorities. Or that our number one TV show features an out gay man as its star.

But these examples of success are quickly tokenized. "Sure, it worked once, but it can't possibly work again."

Instead of saying "Why is that?" we say "It can't be true."

And so we fall in to complacency. Because it's comfortable, it's safe, it's easy. And we continue to hear from the same voices over and over again, hoping someone else will break through... so they may eventually be tokenized.

"Why is that?"

...And this is why I admire the hell out of David Bowie's question. He knew that to better our society, we needed to hear from the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the voices that are being silenced..

Yes, Bowie was himself marginalized and disenfranchised at some point, so he spoke from experience; but it's important to remember that he was, at his base, a white cis-gendered man. He always advocated from a place of privilege, and he knew it. Because of his white male cis-genderedness (a new word I've decided works for this sentence), he advocated for race, sexuality, and gender identity.

Look: the best works of art come from those who have something to say. So why are we hell-bent on making sure no one can say it? Why is it comfortable for us to just listen to the status quo? To not advocate for diversity?

Where are the David Bowies in our modern society? Where are the people in positions of power who look beyond themselves and say, "I want to hear from those who don't look/act/think like me?"

I give everyone a mission today. Please, in honor of The Bowie, find the places in your life where you have a voice, and make a point to advocate for the voiceless.

You might just be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Keith Powell is an actor, writer, and director. He is most known for his role as Toofer on 30 Rock. He has had recurring roles on About A Boy and The Newsroom, and created, wrote, and directed the original web series Keith Broke His Leg (www.GetBroken.com). Check out his other blog posts here and follow him on Twitter at: @KeithPowell