Charlie's 80s Blog

Charlie’s Early MTV Chronicles: African-American Artists On MTV 1981-1982

I started watching MTV within a few days of its launch on August 1, 1981. It was only a few weeks after my 10th birthday. The first video I ever saw was ‘Tempted’ by the band Squeeze. From that moment on, I was hooked.

Prior to MTV, I was a radio and record junkie. I loved the bands and artists from the 70s and even the music from the 50s and 60s that my parents would often play in the house. But when MTV launched, everything changed. With it came new genres of music, new bands, new styles, and of course you could now SEE your favorite artists. Videos back then were as memorable as the songs themselves, and still are. But with all that great music in 1981 and 1982 that MTV played, something was missing, black artists. The network so sparingly showcased African Americans in its early days that Rick James and David Bowie publicly took MTV to task.

When MTV launched on Aug. 1, 1981, there was basically only one black person’s face on the network that was a fixture. It belonged to J.J. Jackson, the sole African American on MTV’s roster of video jockeys, or VJs as they became known. “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 co-founder 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. 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 Michael Jackson’s record label, would MTV agree to play his music videos? Not right away.

It took major pressure to get MTV to play “Billie Jean,” the second track from ‘Thriller’, Michael’s 1982 smash album.  Released Jan. 2, 1983, the single would go on to top the Billboard 100 chart for seven weeks, but Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records Group, reportedly had to threaten to remove all other CBS videos from MTV before the network agreed to air the video for “Billie Jean.” 

Garland denied such a confrontation occurred, telling Jet that the network began 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.

Before ‘Billie Jean’, I can only remember TWO African-American artists being played in the MTV rotation every so often. The first was a song by Gary U.S. Bonds whose career had been resurrected thanks to Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street band earlier in 1981. “This Little Girl” was a big hit that year and had Bruce and the band playing on the track and singing backup on the studio version of the song. That aired every so often on MTV in the summer/fall of 1981.

The other, a song called ‘Demolition Man’ by Grace Jones. This video aired in relatively heavy rotation in 1981.

That was it, until Michael Jackson and ‘Billie Jean’ came along in early 1983 and changed the course of MTV. What videos by African-American artists do you remember being played before Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’? Am I missing one?

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