The rap music, vegan muffin fiasco at Duke University (Update: Coffee shop is leaving campus)

I can’t say that this is an important story but it’s definitely an amusing one and possibly telling about this cultural moment in some ways. Today the President of Duke University apologized for an incident that took place last week which resulted in the firing of two baristas. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Duke University’s president, Vincent E. Price, apologized on Thursday for the recent firing of two baristas at a campus coffee shop, according to the student newspaper. In a written statement, Price noted “that we are not where we want to be as a university.”…

“I am, in particular, sorry that the words of one of my senior administrators recently resulted in two individuals working for one of our on-campus vendors losing their jobs; and while I am pleased that the vendor has taken steps to reverse this action, I apologize for the precipitous and unfair treatment these employees experienced,” Price wrote, according to the student newspaper. “We must do better.”

The story behind the firing, which involves a rap song and a vegan muffin, is almost too dumb to be true and yet… Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic wrote about it Wednesday:

Last week, Larry Moneta, Duke’s vice president of student affairs, stopped into his regular coffee shop in the student center, Joe Van Gogh, for a hot tea and a vegan muffin. The business was streaming music on Spotify, per usual, and as the university administrator stood waiting in line, “Get Paid” by Young Dolph happened to be playing. Its endlessly repeated refrain is “Get paid, young nigga, get paid.”

An alt-weekly, Indy Week, wrote a detailed story about the incident describing what happened next:

Britni Brown, who was manning the register, was in charge of the playlist that day.

When he approached the counter, Moneta, a white man, told Brown, an African-American woman, that the song was inappropriate.

“The words, ‘I’ll eff you upside down,’ are inappropriate,” Moneta said, according to Brown. (Those exact lyrics are not in the song, though it has plenty of f-bombs.)

“Yes, of course,” Brown said. She says she shut the song off immediately. She grabbed him a vegan muffin and offered it free of charge.

“No,” Brown recalls Moneta saying. “Ring me up for it.”

Brown says she offered again, apologizing for the offense the song had caused.

“You need me to ring me up for it right now,” Moneta insisted.

While Brown was working the register, Kevin Simmons, the other barista on duty, was busy making drinks. Simmons had worked there for three months and was up for his ninety-day review the next week. While pulling shots of espresso, he noticed a man who was upset with Brown.

“Harassing is definitely the word I would use,” Simmons says. “He was verbally harassing her.”

Ten minutes after Moneta, the Duke VP, left the store, there was a call from the manager asking what had happened. Brown, the barista, explained the situation and apologized. That was on Friday. On Monday, both Brown and Simmons (who wasn’t even involved) were called into the office.

At that meeting, Amanda Wiley from Joe Van Gogh’s human resources department told them that they could no longer work at Joe Van Gogh.

“We had gotten a call from Robert Coffey of Duke saying that the VP of the university had come into the shop and that there was vulgar music playing,” Wiley said, according to the recording. “Joe Van Gogh is contracted by Duke University, so we essentially work for them. And they can shut us down at any point.”

Wiley cleared her throat. “Duke University has instructed us to terminate the employees that were working that day,” she said.

So, despite the fact that neither barista had selected the song and that they turned it off immediately and apologized, they were fired. Brown, who had been working at Joe Van Gogh for a year and a half, was especially upset that her co-worker Kevin Simmons was fired. “For [Simmons, a white man] to be fired because of this, it is not fair,” she told her boss. She added, “I feel like you guys were trying to cover it up as to make it not look discriminatory for firing a person of color.”

As for Larry Moneta (the Duke VP) he later claimed he had made a call to the director of Duke Dining but hadn’t done anything else. He blamed the firing on Joe Van Gogh. But according to the Joe Van Gogh supervisor, someone demanded that everyone there that day be fired. It’s not entirely clear who is telling the truth.

I agree this story is stupid and outrageous but I don’t necessarily agree with Conor Friedersdorf that Moneta’s initial objection was off base. Moneta walked into a public place at lunchtime where young children could conceivably be present and heard this over the stereo:

Pulled up on the side of your bitch, she wouldn’t stop looking
That bitch good as tooken, good as gone
I guarantee tonight my nigga, that bitch ain’t coming home
I got money to count, I got bitches to f–k
I got packs to flip, pistols to bust

If it were me, I’d say something to the person behind the counter. Not aggressive. Not rude. Just, ‘What’s with the music?’ If the barista was belligerent and told me I’m a prude or ‘what’s the problem?’, I’d shrug and walk out. If on the other hand they turned it off, apologized, and offered me free food, I’d say thank you and consider that the end of it.

Larry Moneta wasn’t wrong to speak up, but he should have taken yes for an answer, accepted the apology, taken his free vegan muffin, and gone on his way. No harm, no foul. The end of this story. Where this jumps the shark is when this minor incident apparently turns into a university VP harassing a barista (who wasn’t picking the songs). Then, even after she apologizes, he reports her to the people who lease this coffee shop space. Suddenly, it becomes a very big deal and an implied (if not a direct) threat: Fire everyone who was there or else.

There’s an old saying that petty tyrants are the worst. Give someone a little power and responsibility and they sometimes go crazy with it. No one should be fired over something this. Joe Van Gogh hasn’t confirmed whether or not they’ll be rehiring the two baristas, but they should. Then they could look into the Spotify playlists.

Update: Just as I finished writing this story, I came across this story:

Joe Van Gogh owner Robbie Roberts announced Friday that the chain is leaving Duke.

“Effective immediately, I have decided to cut my company’s ties with Duke University. I believe it’s the right thing to do to preserve Joe Van Gogh’s brand independence without conditions,” Roberts wrote in the statement. “I have extended jobs to our entire team at our Duke on-campus store, either at one of our off-campus locations or at our production offices. And, I have reached out to our two baristas who were provided severance so that they may either re-join Joe Van Gogh or secure employment elsewhere if they like.”

This seems like a lot of uproar over something that should have been resolved with the generous offer of a free muffin.