Why It Took MTV So Long To Play Black Music Videos
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.”