Beyonce. Jay-Z. Kanye West. When MTV launched in 1981, viewers would have been hard-pressed to find black artists, such as the three named above, on its airwaves. The network so sparingly showcased African Americans in its early days that musicians such as Rick James and David Bowie publicly took it to task, leaving no doubt that MTV and black music have had a rocky history.
So, how did MTV shift from arguably shutting African American musicians out in the early 1980s to routinely spotlighting their contributions decades later? A brief history of the channel’s developments involving race helps answer that question.
Blackout in Video Land
When MTV debuted on Aug. 1, 1981, at least one black face on the network was a mainstay. It belonged to J.J. Jackson, the sole African American VJ, or video jockey, on the network then. Despite Jackson’s presence on MTV through 1986, the network faced allegations of racism from artists and viewers soon after its debut due to the dearth of black acts featured. MTV executives have denied that racism was at the root of the network’s “blackout,” saying that black artists received little airplay because their music didn’t fit the channel’s rock-based format.
“MTV was originally designed to be a rock music channel,” said Buzz Brindle, MTV’s former director of music programming, to Jet magazine in 2006. “It was difficult for MTV to find African American artists whose music fit the channel’s format that leaned toward rock at the outset.”
With so few black rockers, adding African Americans to MTV’s roster proved difficult, according to the network’s cofounder Les Garland whom Jet also interviewed.
“We had nothing to pick from,” Garland explained. “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…”
One artist needed no convincing, however. He’d even made a video for “Don't Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” a cut from his 1979 album Off the Wall. But when approached by his record label, would MTV play Michael Jackson’s music videos?
King of Pop Shake Up
To say it took some prodding to get MTV to play “Billie Jean,” the second track from Michael Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller, would be an understatement, according to some reports. Released Jan. 2, 1983, the single would go on to top the Billboard 100 chart for seven weeks, but CBS Records Group President Walter Yetnikoff had to threaten to remove all other CBS videos from MTV before the network agreed to air the video for “Billie Jean,” reported Rolling Stone.
Garland, however, denied that such a confrontation occurred, telling Jet that the network initiated playing the video on its own. “There was never any hesitation. No fret,” he said. Based on his account, MTV aired the video the same day that executives screened it.
However “Billie Jean” ended up on the network, there’s little doubt that it changed the course of MTV. The first video by a black artist to receive heavy rotation on the network, “Billie Jean” opened up the door for other artists of color to be featured on MTV.
Not only did “Billie Jean” create opportunities for other black artists, it also paved the way for Michael Jackson to star in 14-minute music video “Thriller,” the most expensive music video ever made then. “Thriller” debuted Dec. 2, 1983. It proved so popular that it was released as a home video which went on to become a record-breaking best-seller.
Rock Music Takes a Backseat
Black recording artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston dominated the pop and R&B charts in the 1980s. During the same period, however, another urban art form was commanding the music industry’s attention—hip-hop. Films such as “Beat Street” and “Krush Groove” paid homage to hip-hop in the first half of the decade, and by the second half, MTV had taken notice, debuting hip-hop centered program “Yo! MTV Raps” on Aug. 6, 1988. According to USA Today, the show was the first ever to exclusively focus on hip-hop. It aired on MTV for seven years. The show opened the door for “MTV Jams,” a program with an urban music focus that premiered in 1996.
Although MTV began with a rock format in mind, the popularity of pop music, hip-hop and R&B among the general public left the network no choice but to diversify its playlists. By the late 1990s, rock music received increasingly less airplay on the channel as boy bands, Disney starlets and rappers gained ground with audiences, and rock music recovered from the death of grunge.
MTV may have been criticized for failing to showcase black recording artists from the outset, but it has always included African American VJs among its staff, starting with the late J.J. Jackson. Other notable MTV VJs of color include Downtown Julie Brown, Daisy Fuentes, Idalis, Bill Bellamy and Ananda Lewis. On shows such as the long-running “Real World,” MTV makes a point to showcase cast members from diverse backgrounds.
Although MTV has made considerable gains in diversity over the decades, the network has suffered race-related controversies in recent years. In 2006, it drew fire for airing a cartoon that featured black women as canines—tethered, squatting on all fours and defecating. Then MTV president Christina Norman defended the cartoon, calling it a parody of an appearance rapper Snoop Dogg had made with two black women wearing neck collars and chains.
Black activists found this response unacceptable, but when lobbing their accusations of racism and misogyny at the network, they had to take into account one major development MTV had made: The network was being run by a woman of color. That’s right; Christina Norman is black. She served as president of MTV from 2005 to 2008.
The cartoon controversy indicates that, during Norman’s tenure, MTV still had much-needed lessons to learn about race. But her ascendancy to the top also indicated that the network accused of shutting out black recording artists now welcomes diversity both on its airwaves and in its boardroom.