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Why it took MTV so long to play black music videos

Jet, Oct 9, 2006

Music TeleVision (MTV) hit America's airwaves with a sonic boom 25 years ago. The pioneering cable television network also received a deafening tongue-lashing from a super ticked Rick James, who publicly declared it "blatant racism" when MTV refused to air his Super Freak video and other videos by Black artists because they didn't fit the network's rock-dominated format.

"A lot of Black asses are going to come together and explode on MTV," James said in 1983. "There are no Blacks on MTV's program list except for Tina Turner, and she stopped being Black about 10 years ago. MTV puts on little White punk groups who don't even have record deals. Blacks are missing exposure and sales."

Modeled after Top 40 radio, MTV's video playlist had a meager few Black videos in 1981. Most of its early videos came from England where music videos were already common.

Eddy Grant, Musical Youth and Joan Armatrading were some of the Black artists from that country whose videos were shown during MTV's inception. Tina Turner, Jon Butcher Axis, The Bus Boys and Donna Summer were some of the other Black artists whose videos were shown because their music fit the format.

James, whose music helped define "punk funk," fought for two years to have more Black videos shown on MTV. ABC's "Nightline" featured his much publicized crusade. But the outspoken performer, who died in 2004, became agitated because it seemed as though he was on the battlefield's front line alone.

"I'm a crusader without an army," James said. "All these Black artists claim they're behind me, but when it's time to make a public statement, you can't find them ... They're going to let me do all the rapping and get into trouble and then they'll reap the benefits."

Other artists did, however, agree with James and spoke up. During an on-air interview in 1983, music icon David Bowie suddenly asked, "Why are there practically no Black artists on the network?" Bowie, the husband of model Iman, who gave the late Luther Vandross his first professional break in 1974 as a backup singer, left VJ Mark Goodman fishing for words.

MTV's current president, Christina Norman, who is Black, and Brian Graden, head of programming, could not be reached for comment about the network's early exclusionary practices.

Les Garland, co-founder and originator of MTV, VH1, and The Box, was available and ready to talk.

"There was a shortage of Black videos by urban artists," says Garland, now president/CEO of The Tube Music Network. "The success of this AOR (album-oriented rock) format in radio certainly had its influence on MTV. But, there were no music videos. They weren't being made. We had nothing to pick from.

"Fifty percent of my time was spent in the early days of MTV convincing artists to make music videos and convincing record labels to put up money to make those videos because this was a whole new area of expense that they never had before. MTV put music on television and it began to work. It began breaking artists."

The video for Super Freak, recalls Garland, was not aired because, "Its contents was a little over the top for us, and our standards and practices wouldn't go for it because of the content of the visuals. It had nothing to do with the song. It had nothing to do with him. It was a little over the top for us back then. Then he went on that whole tirade."

Buzz Brindle, MTV's early director of music programming who reported to Garland, defended the network's early format then and does so now.

"The point I always made was that MTV was originally designed to be a rock music channel," he says. "It was difficult for MTV to find African-American artists whose music fit the channel's format that leaned toward rock at the outset."

Ed Lover, former co-host of the groundbreaking "Yo! MTV Raps," told JET he disagreed.

"The name of your station is music television and hot rock music television," says Ed Lover, now a radio personality at New York's Power 105.1. "If you would have come out with a station called RMTV, rock music television, then you could make that claim. But if you're saying music, music is music. If you're going to show music videos, show all music videos."

When Michael Jackson's record label submitted his video for Billie Jean in 1983, it changed how the network excluded videos. Garland was the man who made the decision to air Billie Jean, though it didn't fit the formula.

"There was never any hesitation. No fret," says Garland, dispelling the "myth" that Jackson's record label threatened to pull all of its videos if Billie Jean was not shown. "I called Bob (Pittman, MTV co-founder) to tell him, 'I just saw the greatest video I've ever seen in my life. It is off the dial it's so good.' We added it that day. How (the myth) turned into a story literally blew our minds."

Fab 5 Freddy, the original host of "Yo! MTV Raps," the first nationally broadcast hip-hop show, said, "I'm sure what Rick did by making a little noise helped them realize they weren't doing the right thing. Music in America starts with Black people. It was a very obvious omission that we weren't there. That's something that had to be addressed. I was happy to see MTV step up big time."


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