And so it seems that if you’re African American and a fan of the late, great rock ’n’ roll chameleon David Bowie, social media presumes your fandom stems from one of four things (or some combination thereof).
Bowie means something to you if you’re Black because one, he had the open-mindedness to appear on Soul Train in 1975—performing his number one hit, “Fame,” and the lesser known “Golden Years”—four years after Dennis Coffey broke the show’s color barrier. Two, you’ve got love for the plastic soul of “Young Americans,” and appreciate the overall idea that Bowie put on a young Luther Vandross to sing backup six years before his debut album. Three, you’ve put on your red shoes and danced the blues to “Let’s Dance” since forever, and appreciate the overall idea that Bowie collaborated with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. And four, Bowie married Somali supermodel Iman (#relationshipgoals)—a sophisticated lady who stayed by his side for over 20 years.
None of that has anything to do with why I loved Bowie. And none of that has anything to do with why thousands of other African Americans loved Bowie either.
David Bowie stands as the king of rock ’n’ roll reinvention, echoed by Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, De La Soul, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and loads of others. No one but Miles Davis did it better. From Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke and his suited-and-Chelsea-booted Let’s Dance ’80s period, Bowie constantly flipped it. He grew his hair long, he lopped it off; he applied makeup, he applied more, he wiped it all off; he made himself up as an alienated spaceman, he took himself down to earth as a drugged-out expatriate in Berlin, wearing the mask so long it became his face.
And that’s all well and fine. But the lesson to be learned—the lesson taken in by any impressionable teenage music lover deifying his rock ’n’ roll gods—is that it’s okay to try on several styles before you find the one that fits. Anyone on a journey figuring out their greatest version of the grandest vision for who s/he really is is gonna go through some ch-ch-changes. Transformation is an essential tool. Bowie was a master, a patron saint for revolution of the self. Black or White, any 16-year-old paying attention knows this, and loves Bowie for it instinctively.
Bowie, of course, also spoke to misfits of all cultures and walks of life. The New York Times says he “wrote anthems for the alienated,” particularly for those of us whose sexuality isn’t as fixed as whatever Bible Belt, middle American mainstream “norm” is the supposed standard. At the beginning of the glittery glam rock era he kicked off in 1972 with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie told Melody Maker magazine he was gay. I was a baby then, but a college sophomore by the time Bowie’s ex-wife Angela told The Joan Rivers Show she’d once caught him naked in bed with Mick Jagger. I was completely unfazed, and his helping to normalize bisexuality is another major reason why Bowie matters in a major way.
How does a Black boy find his way to Bowie? If you’re from the ’burbs, it’s easy. Bowie is lingua franca out there (along with Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, etc.) and you don’t really get any points for your discovery. I am not from the ’burbs; I am from the Bronx. David Bowie spoke to the misfits, the square pegs, the lost boys (in the Cory Feldman sense of the phrase), but that’s not how he came to me.
A son of twentysomethings in the 1970s, I never had much of a bedtime to speak of. Post-midnight variety shows like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack were as common to me as Super Friends on Saturday mornings. I would’ve first seen Bowie on one of those shows—maybe his last performance as Ziggy Stardust, broadcast on Midnight Special November 16, 1973. My parents never had MTV, nor did they ever spend a dime on any David Bowie music. But I know when I watched the “Modern Love” video premiere on New York Hot Tracks or Friday Night Videos in ’83, Bowie was no stranger.
I remember the day I got jacked for my latest vinyl from Crazy Eddie record store by a Five Percenter around my way: LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” single; James Brown’s In the Jungle Groove double album; and David Bowie’s latest, 1987’s Never Let Me Down. (Fantastic title track on there, inspired by John Lennon. (Who, naturally, cowrote “Fame.”)) The god immediately tossed back the Bowie.
Years later, Lenny Kravitz turned me on to 1971’s Hunky Dory album in some magazine interview (“Changes” is great, but “Life on Mars” and “Andy Warhol” are fine tunes too), and I prefer it to the canonical Ziggy Stardust to this day. Many, many years later, I finally made it with the flexible gymnast from my old high school I’d had many a teenage dream of when “‘Heroes’” came streaming through her Internet radio. Who couldn’t love Bowie after that?
His role as Warhol in Basquiat is classic for any aspiring Black boy genius who came of age in the ’90s. And any music-loving cinéaste has viewed Pink Floyd—The Wall, Mick Jagger’s Performance and Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth as many times as Black boys are expected to have seen Menace II Society or Belly. I’ll admit to discovering “Under Pressure” by way of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” But you can’t take away that feeling-myself moment smoking cigarettes in Madrid with a college gf, first time out the country, with Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” on infinite loop at two in the morning. “Walk on the Wild Side,” produced by David Bowie.
No, my favorite Bowie moments have nothing to do with Vandross. Race is no straitjacket—I wear it as a crown, personally—but my reasons for digging me some David Bowie never had anything to do with him standing up for the lack of African-American music videos on MTV. Black furthermuckers have every right to love Bowie for championing the outcast, pioneering reinvention and mainstreaming LGBT lifestyles as much as anyone else, Soul Train be damned.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.