Leading up to this weekend’s MTV Video Music Awards, Nicki Minaj made international headlines by commenting on how her video “Anaconda” was passed over for video of the year. “If I was a different ‘kind’ of artist, ‘Anaconda’ would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well,” Minaj tweeted. The comment sparked a flurry of discussion about why she wasn’t nominated and brought on an over-hyped “feud” with Taylor Swift, which was apparently resolved as the two performed at the awards show on Sunday. But while media attention focused on Minaj’s back-and-forth with Swift, the more significant issue she raised was often overlooked: the particular ways Black women working in the music industry are pigeonholed as a “type.” In the fuss over the VMAs, I want to take the opportunity to highlight the way Black women who worked for MTV shaped my life and understanding of music.
From as far back as I can remember, MTV was a staple of my television experience. I can recollect being five years old and watching Downtown Julie Brown's bubbly British persona pop and fizz on MTV News. I grew up seeing the first seasons of The Real World, Daria, and watched the era of TRL emerge and disappear. The network's shows and news was filtered through the voices of the youngest, hippest, and most attractive 20-something hosts who were endearingly called VJs.
There are a few Black female MTV VJs who influenced me throughout my coming-of-age and helped give me the courage to become a music journalist myself. When you grow up Black and female in the United States of America (or in any culture, really), you're taught that there are a lot of things you can't do. I'm personally indebted to these strong women for giving other young women of color a road map and a vision to working in the music industry.
Downtown Julie Brown (Host of Club MTV 1985-1992)
Downtown Julie Brown was the queen of quick-thinking, professional banter that saved her from her numerous on-air hiccups. One of these led to her famous catchphrase “Wubba wubba wubba!” that was born out of reading her producer's t-shirt instead of the MTV cue cards she was supposed to be reading. Brown's sense of humor and charming susceptibility to mistakes made her so identifiable and fun to watch. I definitely learned how to mix “quirk and work” from watching Julie Brown’s presence and style on MTV News and Club MTV.
Ananda Lewis (Host of TRL and Hot Zone late 1990s to 2001)
Ananda Lewis was one of my biggest influences in music journalism. When I was a teenager, her distinctive voice, deeply honest interviewing style, and incredible beauty mesmerized me. Ananda's compassionate interviewing skills were front-and-center as she hosted the BET teen talk show Teen Summit, where she learned how to do on-screen interviews (she even interviewed then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton).
Lewis took an offer to work for MTV and continued to make positive waves at the network. She reported on difficult current affairs, hosting special shows on teen violence after the Columbine High School massacre and heading the incredible “True Life” special, True Life: I Am Driving While Black, for which she won an NAACP Image Award. In a network that was often known for outrageous spring break specials and goofy segments, Ananda in contrast taught me some serious lessons: that journalism could always be a way to stand up for the rights of others and encourage empathy.
La La Anthony (Host of TRL and Direct Effect 2001-2003)
After hosting a show with the mega-rap star Ludacris at Atlanta's Hot 97 radio station when she was just a teenager, La La Anthony was already poised for success when she joined MTV. La La, who identifies as Afro-Puetro Rican, was trusted to host the “fly by the seat of your pants” live music and interview show Total Request Live. I remember her most for her laid-back attitude when interviewing celebrities; she had a chemistry with people and her smile made her interviewee's feel at ease while it was still clear she was the host of the show, no matter how much star-power her guests had. La La has gone on to pen two New York Times best-selling books, act in 25 movies and now has a leading role in the 50 Cent-produced television show Power.
Vanessa Mdee (Host of MTV Base Meets 2007 - 2014)
Vanessa Mdee is a Tanzanian recording artist and activist whose presence pushed African politics right into the center of mainstream American TV. Mdee auditioned to be an MTV VJ in an open talent search in Dar es Salaam, winning the coveted position and going on to host MTV shows around Africa and in the United States. Vee's most important work as an MTV VJ was her heading the show, MTV Base Meets. This was an interesting program that allowed young Africans to sit down and have a conversation with an influential leader. Some of the guests included the former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the world's first African supermodel and activist, Alek Wek. MTV Base Meets gave Mdee a chance to do something very meaningful work within MTV Networks while introducing a new generation to African role models and change-makers. She was honored in 2012 by the United Nations Association of Young Professionals for being an African change maker and continues to make music and push for women’s rights in Tanzania today.
Nomuzi Mabena (2012-present MTV Music Video Awards and MAMA Awards)
The awesome South African journalist Nomuzi Mabena is heading the new generation of talented Black MTV VJs. She hosted 2014's MTV Video Music Awards red carpet in Los Angeles after winning the MTV Base VJ Search. At just 23-years-old, I’m excited to see what perspective she brings to MTV moving forward. In the meantime, her advice to other young people who aspire to work in the music industry? “Don’t be too cool to work hard and do the dirty work.”