Back Then There Were Five: The Black Arists (and Their Videos) that Changed 80’s MTV

  In the early 1980s, cable TV was becoming more accessible. Before that, “cable TV” was what I called...


In the early 1980s, cable TV was becoming more accessible. Before that, “cable TV” was what I called “limited TV.” I remember when “cable TV” was only watched from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM. It was only with a paid membership a person was able to watch it on a regular TV. However, if you didn’t pay, the picture was shrunk to one thin line on the screen…and I had to really squint to see a hint of a picture. With no picture, there was no music TV and no videos to watch…until the premiere of Music Television, or MTV.

MTV debuted in 1981 which brought music videos 24 hours a day. However, I noticed the videos only focused on two genres: Rock and roll and heavy metal. They were the focus of the new channel. NO other types of music genres were shown….especially music by African-American musicians. That changed when five African-American artists had videos that were not only played on MTV, they were played in heavy rotation due to high popularity.

Music videos were still a new concept in entertainment. There was no style or direction to make one and what to put in it.  Their unique videos helped change the approach of making one. The success of their videos also helped the artists reach their highest success of their careers.  These five African-Americans (and their videos) changed MTV and also the art of how music video was used.



Number Five: Tina Turner – “What’s Love Got To Do With It”

Tina Turner was making a change and MTV helped her reach it. After five previous albums, Private Dancer became her first significant chart topping album. The album spent over a year in the Billboard Album sales for a year and number 1 for three weeks. The album also provided Tina with four Grammy awards in 1985. Her phenomenal success of her album was achieved by her presence on MTV through her videos. Her video for her song, “Whats Love Got To Do With it” was placed on MTV and played in heavy rotation. The video boosted Tina Turner’s visibility and shot the single to the Billboards Top 10, including Number one.

The reason for the success of the video was the approach compared to other videos at the time. When watching the video again, Tina sang “I’ve been taking on a new direction.” The “new direction” was definite in the video. The high-energy singer and dancer I remember from “Proud Mary” in the 70’s was a different Tina of the 80’s. In the video, she walked alone and met others along the way as she sang about dealing with new relationships. The song and video wasn’t a loud, rock and roll song, but a easy ballad about handling a new potential relationship. The combination of music and video made Tina a success ever since.


Number Four: Lionel Richie – “All Night Long”

Lionel Richie’s career as a solo artist from the Commodores was already strong. His first self-titled album did extremely well. His second album, Can’t Slow Down, proved to be his highest success. It stayed on the Billboard Album for 59 weeks and won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1985. To reach that success, Lionel Richie’s first song from the album “All Night Long” was accompanied with a video that played on MTV. The video introduced the world of Lionel to a larger viewing audience which played a heavy part to the album’s success.

This light video was one of my favorites on MTV. It was another total opposite of the heavy metal and rock videos. The video reflected the song’s lyrics. People were “dancing all in the street” and “the rhythm all in their feet,” as the music “played on”. The Caribbean-influenced music reflected in the video’s style, clothing and dance. The video also had diverse styles of dance from hip hop, contemporary, and even African. The hip-hop dancing and choreography was produced by Shabba-Doo. He later grew to success in the 80’s movies, Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2. The video, along with Tina’s, gave the viewing audience another “break” from the heavy metal and rock. The video’s lighter side to “hard” music gave Richie his success which continued through his other music videos.



Number Three: Run-DMC – “Rock Box”

The rap group, Run-DMC, made many significant firsts in hip-hop history. They were the first to have albums reach gold, platinum and multi-platinum status They also were the first to be nominated for a Grammy for their debut album. Their most significant first was “Rock Box,” the first rap video to play on MTV. The hip-hop group cleverly used the song to gain notice on the channel, which had a heavy rock-oriented guitar solo. The rock-influenced song gave viewers of rock and hip-hop the best of both worlds on one song which also reflected on the video.

I noticed how the video was also clever by showing how rap can reach all people of different backgrounds. The audience in the video was from all races and backgrounds. The true success of the video came from Run-DMC. Despite the background music, that duo did not portray themselves as rock artists. They claimed themselves as hardcore rappers claiming their title as the Kings of Rap. That title stayed with them in the 80s as they reached greater success with their next albums, King of Rock and Raising Hell.


Number Two: Prince – “Little Red Corvette”

Prince was a mainstay of MTV until his death in 2016. His music, which was a blend of hip-hop, rock and R&B, was perfect for MTV. His success in the 1980’s came from his album and movie, Purple Rain. Before that, 1999 was the album that brought his music videos to MTV. He already had many hits from the previous album but the most successful at the time was “Little Red Corvette”, his first top 10 single on the Billboard pop charts.

The video of “Little Red Corvette” was unique. I watched his previous videos such as “1999” and “Automatic”. Those videos showed him in moody lighting, a smoky atmosphere, and various shots of the band. As I watched Little Red Corvette again, there were changes to this video. The video focused more on Prince. The smoke was gone and the purple lighting was changed to bright spotlights. The young artist who wore a long rhinestone coat and high heel boots took advantage of the focus by showing off his dancing, style and oozing sexuality. From that point on, Prince set himself apart from his band (the Revolution, New Power Generation) and set himself apart in music history.

Number One: Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean”

Michael Jackson’s history with MTV has been the most significant of all of the others listed. However, the road to greatness had a bump in beginning. When Thriller came out in 1983, Michael Jackson wanted to have his video played on the video channel. The network execs refused. It wasn’t until the President of Arista Records stepped in and issued a ultimatum: If you can’t play Michael Jackson’s music video, we’re going to take off all the other artists videos on your channel. Once Billie Jean was played on MTV, the rest was history. Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean became the first video by a African-American artist to be played on MTV and received the highest rotations of airplay which spurred a higher demand for the others on this list.

It was interesting to watch the video again for it seemed to be a prediction.  Jackson’s music video told a four-minute story about the price of popularity. I remember MTV’s rock videos just showed concert performances. Other videos also had ideas that were not associated to the song. His video seemed to be a premonition of his future as a success. He was hounded by the pressman to catch him in scandal. However, much like his career, the video had Michael avoid scandal and turn the tables back on the press. Walking along the sidewalk, lighting each step and able to disappear from harm, he also made himself to be bigger than life in the video. Michael’s persona has grown even more since that video. Even after his death in 2009, his video is still one of the highest watched videos on YouTube.

The artists above were not the only ones on MTV. Other Black artists appeared on MTV in the 80s such as Donna Summer, Eddy Grant and Herbie Hancock. Their videos also were played highly. However, their time on MTV was only on one or two videos. The five listed here continued to have videos shown on the channel through the decade. Their presence made history for their careers and helped make the channel grow to accept all genres of music still today.

Written by Thaddeus Armstead
T.J. Armstead has worked as a teacher and college professor. He has a large collection of Black media and has spoken at different colleges on African American images in the media. He enjoys traveling to different cities to experience different cultures such as New Orleans, Chicago and strangely enough, Cleveland. He currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio where he works on his next project or reading his large collection of African-American books. Profile

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