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The Passing of an Artist; David Bowie Broke Down Barriers and Prejudices

David Bowie
David Bowie, 1947-2016

 
By Ed Diokno
 

David Bowie died Sunday (Jan. 10) after an 18-month battle with cancer. Tributes and memorials came pouring in from around the world about his influence and impact on music.

 

I have to admit, at first, I was not a big follower of David Bowie. The shaved eyebrows, the eye makeup, the painted face, the outlandish clothes and outrageous performances, I thought, were merely role-playing and attention-getters in a world where everyone clamored to be “different. But, as he matured the musician/singer/songwriter helped form part of the soundtrack of my life.

 

With all the tributes by his peers in the entertainment industry, there is one interview that sticks out and it had nothing to do about him.

 

In the 80s, MTV was still a fledgling entertainment network and music videos were still competing with vinyl records and tapes and there was still a debate which way the music industry was going to go.

 
During a 1983 interview with MTV veejay Mark Goodman, David Bowie asked a simple, important question, “Why aren’t there more Blacks on your network?” The question caught the interviewer by surprise. It was a question that I remember discussing with my friends at the time and one of the reasons I didn’t watch much of MTV’s shows. In those days, there was a network for Black entertainment videos and there was the white-washed world of MTV.

 

Unlike some of the aspiring Black artists of the time, Bowie’s stature in the entertainment world was strong enough that he could ask the question without repercussions. He used his platform and – yes – his privilege to advocate for others without making it about himself.

 

He didn’t shout or point fingers, but in a nonthreatening manner, he made his point.

 

Was it Bowie’s interview that changed the network’s exclusionary policy? Maybe, maybe not. All that matters is that the racist policy changed and MTV helped launch the careers of several  Black performers.

It was in Australia where Bowie had his “a-ha” moment that changed his life and made me a fan.

“It occurred to me that one doesn’t have much time on the planet, you know?” he said in a Rolling Stone interview. “And that I could do something more useful in terms of … I know this is very cliche, but I feel that now that I’m thirty-six years old, and I’ve got a certain position, I want to start utilizing that position to the benefit of my . . . brotherhood and sisterhood.” He winces, but continues. “I’ve found it’s very easy to be successful in other terms, but I think you can’t keep on being an artist without actually saying anything more than, ‘Well, this is an interesting way of looking at things.’

….”There is also a right way of looking at things: there’s a lot of injustice. So let’s, you know, say something about it. However naff it comes off.”

Maybe his most memorable statements on race and racism were his songs and videos China Girl, and Let’s Dance, both of which were taped in Australia and directed by now famous movie director David Mallet starring a 23-year old New Zealand waitress/model Geeling Ng, (now, Geeling Ching) who turned her 15-minutes of fame into a television and modeling career.

In China Girl, written with Iggy Pop, Bowie parodied the stereotypes about Asian women and mocked the imperialistic habits of Europeans and White Americans.

Geela Ng and David Bowie in "China Girl"
Geela Ng and David Bowie in China Girl

My little China girl

You shouldn’t mess with me

I’ll ruin everything you are

I’ll give you television

I’ll give you eyes of blue

I’ll give you man who wants to rule the world

Not surprisngly, a relationship blossomed off-screen between Bowie and Ng. He took her on tour with him. “It was so special. The time I spent with David I would never trade for anything,’ the now 55-year-old told NZ Herald after the 69-year-old lost his battle to cancer on Sunday.The China Girl video won “best video by a male artist” in the first MTV awards held in 1984.

Let’s Dance, the title song of one of Bowie’s most successful albums, featured an Aboriginal couple struggling against Western cultural imperialism. The video was described by Bowie as a “very simple, very direct” statement against racism.According to Mallet, they shot the bar scenes in the morning, which didn’t go over well with the locals, who didn’t appreciate Bowie and the fashionable crew. Some of the patrons also resented the Aborigines who starred in the clip, and mocked them with their own dance moves. The White people dancing in the bar were really – I mean, really – making fun of the couple, according to the director.

Although Bowie was not a raving, shouting, sign-waving activist, in his low-key way, he did what he could as an artist to move society’s acceptance and tolerance level a few notches upwards.  From his songs, his interviews, to the questions about his sexual orientation, he was in many ways a groundbreaking artist doing what he could to make this a better world. That’s about all one can ask of one’s life: To leave this world a little bit better than it was.


 
(Ed Diokno writes a blog :Views From The Edge: news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.)

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