America’s relationship with race always puzzled David Bowie, and he famously criticised MTV executives for the lack of airplay they gave to Black artists. Furthermore, Bowie also found himself caught in the middle of a race riot which had a lasting impact on his life.
Bowie was an adopted American and lived in the country for most of his adult life, but there were certain aspects of US culture that he couldn’t understand, despite making it his home for decades. Specifically, there was one event that Bowie witnessed in the early 1990s which shook him to his core, and in response, he felt a need to write about the issue of racial tension.
In 1992, Bowie married Iman after meeting two years prior while he was recording with Tin Machine in Los Angeles. Their ceremony was in Lausanne, Switzerland, but a few days later, when they returned to California, the newlyweds were caught in the middle of the riots.
The couple were in Los Angeles to purchase a new home, but the riots meant they were holed up in a hotel for their own safety. Over six days, carnage took place across Los Angeles and, tragically, 63 people lost their lives, and a further 2,383 suffered injuries. Furthermore, it’s also estimated there was $1 billion of damage to properties.
The riots were a response from the Black community to the acquittal of four white Los Angeles policemen on all but one charge in connection with the severe beating of a motorist in March 1991. It’s a chain of events which has left a dark stain on America, and Bowie was left scarred by the chain of events.
In an interview, Bowie said: “It was an extraordinary feeling. I think the one thing that sprang into our minds was that it felt more like a prison riot than anything else. It felt as if innocent inmates of some vast prison were trying to break out, break free from their bonds.”
Following the riots, Bowie penned ‘Black Tie White Noise’, which directly dealt with how we can improve racial tensions in the wake of the riots he created with Black artists Al. B Sure! and Nile Rodgers.
The track features the lines, “Reach out over race and hold each other’s hands, Walk through the night thinking we are the world, Whoa, what’s going on?” Meanwhile, in the first verse, Bowie sings: “Getting my facts from a Benetton ad, Lookin’ through African eyes, Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire, (Black tie, white noise), I’ve got a face, not just my race, Bang, bang, I’ve got you babe.”
‘Black Tie White Noise’ was Bowie’s way of outstretching his arm across communities and trying to bring everyone together. Unfortunately, almost 30 years later, the track is still incredibly relevant, and Bowie’s lyrics feel more pertinent than ever.