How MTV Handled Accusations of Racism and Became More Inclusive

Yo MTV Raps

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When MTV launched in 1981, viewers struggled to find videos featuring Black artists. The network so sparingly showcased African Americans in its early days that Rick James and David Bowie publicly took it to task. Despite the channel's embrace of Black musicians such as BeyonceJay-Z and Kanye West today, there's no denying MTV's rocky history with Black music.

So, how did MTV shift from shutting African American musicians out in the early 1980s to routinely spotlighting their contributions decades later? A brief history of the channel’s progress regarding race helps to answer that question.

Did MTV Exclude Black Videos? 

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 on MTV's roster of video jockeys, or VJs as they became known.

Despite Jackson’s presence on MTV through 1986, the network faced allegations of racism for giving scant airtime to videos featuring people of color. 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 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?

How the King of Pop Changed MTV

It took major prodding to get MTV to play “Billie Jean,” the second track from Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller. 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.

“Billie Jean” also paved the way for Michael Jackson to star in the 14-minute music video “Thriller,” the most expensive music video ever made at the time. “Thriller” debuted Dec. 2, 1983. It proved so popular that it was released as a home video that went on to become a record-breaking bestseller.

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.

The films "Beat Street" and "Krush Groove" paid homage to hip-hop in the first half of the decade. By the second half, MTV had taken notice. It debuted its 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. (BET's "Rap City" premiered the following year.)

“Yo! MTV Raps” aired on MTV for seven years. The program 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.

Black VJs

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, albeit often stereotypically.

Cartoon Controversy

Although MTV has made considerable gains in diversity over the decades, the network has suffered race-related controversies in the 21st century. In 2006, it drew backlash for airing a cartoon that featured Black women as canines — tethered, squatting on all fours, and defecating. The network's then-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 as they lobbed their accusations of racism and misogyny at the network, they had to take into account one major development at MTV: A woman of color ran the channel. That’s right; Christina Norman is Black. She served as president of MTV from 2005 to 2008.

The cartoon controversy reveals that during Norman’s tenure, MTV still had much-needed lessons to learn about race. But her rise to the top also indicated that the network accused of shutting out Black recording artists now welcomed diversity both on its airwaves and in its boardroom.

Programming That Challenges Racial Bias

In 2014, through a partnership with David Binder Research, MTV conducted a study of bias among the millennial generation. Soon after, it launched the website Look Different, a resource for young people wishing to fight for greater equality among marginalized peoples.  

A year later, MTV's vice president of public affairs, Ronnie Cho, announced that MTV would create and sponsor ongoing programming designed to change attitudes and behaviors around racial bias. Included in that programming was MTV's July 22, 2015, premier of the documentary White People, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas traveled across the country speaking to White millennials about topics like privilege and race relations.