Then the Censors Came for Rap Music

A barista at a coffee shop on the Duke campus was fired because a high-powered administrator took offense to the song she was playing off Spotify.

Gerry Broome / AP

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.”

Durham’s alt-weekly, Indy Week, recounts what happened next:

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

...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.” Simmons did not hear what Moneta or Brown said specifically, but he noticed Brown hastily turning off the music and apologizing profusely.

If that’s where the matter ended, this would be the sort of story that happens all the time in the United States but is seldom discussed: a patron feels righteously entitled in interaction with low-wage service worker, lashing out in a manner that is needlessly harsh and glaringly uncharitable, while the low-wage service worker is unfailingly polite and doing her level-best to be accommodating.

But that is not where it ended.

Instead, Moneta, a college administrator playing to type, escalated the matter by needlessly injecting it into his institution’s bureaucracy. If you’ve been wondering what Duke’s burgeoning numbers of administrators do all day, here’s a look at a priority two chose: Moneta called Robert Coffey, Duke’s director of dining services, telling him that while at a coffee shop that contracts with the university, he heard an inappropriate song playing.

So the head of dining services called Robbie Roberts, the owner of Joe Van Gogh, who relies on income from Duke University. Now back to the alt-weekly, which somehow got audio of the meeting between the two baristas who were there during the incident and Joe Van Gogh’s human-resources manager:

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. “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.”

After a long pause, she offered Brown and Simons severance if they resigned. She said she had the paperwork for termination and resignation with her, so they could choose either option. Then she reassured them that she and other managers would be a positive reference for them for future jobs. Throughout the meeting, Wiley expressed how good employees both Brown and Simmons had been...

“I’m just kind of shocked,” Simmons told Wiley. “I didn’t have any control over the music. I’m having trouble understanding how I’m responsible for this.”

“For [Simmons, a white man] to be fired because of this, it is not fair,” Brown, who had worked at Joe Van Gogh for nearly a year and a half, told Wiley. “I feel like you guys were trying to cover it up as to make it not look discriminatory for firing a person of color.”

“This is coming from the university,” Wiley responded.

Bless Britni Brown: Even while getting needlessly fired on the whim of Duke administrators, despite being a solid employee, she stood up for her co-worker. That moment should impress any prospective employer.

Now, perhaps everything after the call to Coffey, the head of dining services, could have been written off as a terrible misunderstanding, if the Duke administrators had reacted to the alt-weekly story by saying, “No! It wasn’t our intention at all to have the young employees fired! Please rehire them, we just want the college coffee shop to assiduously censor its music going forward!”

Instead, Moneta, who does not believe that Duke should restrict hate speech (citing a persuasive book on the topic), emailed this statement to The Chronicle:

"I expressed my objections to the staff with whom I’ve always had a cordial relationship. I insisted on paying for my purchase and left the store. I then contacted the director of Duke Dining to express my concerns and that was the end of my involvement … To those who feel that I’ve flipped on my positions on free expression, I say this. The artist who wrote, recorded and performed the music is absolutely entitled to do so, however offensive I might find the lyrics."

He wrote that how Joe Van Gogh's management chose to respond to the incident was their choice. "The employees who chose to play the song in a business establishment on the Duke campus made a poor decision which was conveyed to the JVG management," Moneta wrote. "How they responded to the employees’ behavior was solely at their discretion."

Marvel with me at the apostrophe implying that he continues to consider the employee who didn’t, in fact, choose the music as an employee whose behavior is relevant.

In recent years, as much digital culture writing increasingly focused on whether a film or a TV show was woke, and resurfaced old sitcoms to reevaluate them for being problematic, I began quietly asking friends about something that puzzled me. The focus on social justice in young-adult literature only increased my curiosity. As college campuses grew hypersensitive to micro-aggressions, I wondered the same thing yet again. “Why is it,” I would ask, “that music is subjected to wildly different standards than every other kind of pop culture?”

I wasn’t complaining. I like the Rolling Stones, West Coast gangsta rap, and Jay-Z, among many other artists whose songs feature profane, sexist lyrics—I very much did not want overzealous policing of music that would end in even more Muzak in public places.

That’s why I asked quietly.

But I kept thinking: Surely it’s only a matter of time before the music that played at most every party when I was at a liberal-arts college will be seen as problematic and playlists will start being vetted by student committees of sonic inclusion.

“Under My Thumb”? “It Ain’t No Fun”? Hell, even Jay-Z has distanced himself from “You know I thug 'em, fuck 'em, love 'em, leave 'em / ‘Cause I don't fuckin' need 'em / Take 'em out the hood, keep 'em lookin' good/ But I don't fuckin' feed 'em.”

Surely those lyrics are all more offensive than, say, celebrating Cinco de Mayo or wearing a prom dress influenced by Chinese fashion that doesn’t bother people in China?

Even the Beatles wouldn’t be safe (though one suspects Moneta would never have behaved that way if he had heard a Beatles song rather than f-bombs in rap.)

But that hasn’t happened yet. Somehow, songs that the censorious right attacked for decades and that the censorious left would excoriate if a film or television show offered similar treatment of the same themes have mostly been left alone—even when their lyrics stereotyped and slurred and micro-aggressed in every direction—as if this was the one realm where artistic vision was sacrosanct and audiences were presumed mature enough to responsibly dance or even sing along to lyrics the literal the meaning of which they didn’t endorse.

So of course two young baristas in a country where Donald “Grab ‘em by the pussy” Trump is president, where Kanye “let’s have a toast for the scumbags” West is the new darling of the conservative movement, where Chris Rock’s riff on Lil Jon is more than a decade old, where the most recent Pulitzer Prize in music went to the brilliant Kendrick Lamar, where albums stream over wifi rather than coming in packages with parental advisories, would not think to turn off a profane rap song, or even notice its edge as they worked through a customer rush.

Maybe those social standards should change. I’ve been in public places with young kids around and thought, yikes, that song is a lot. I certainly wouldn’t go babysit for friends and throw on Dr. Dre with their 4 year-old. But even if you think the standards should change, the approach of calling out random people helplessly embedded in profane U.S. culture, as if upbraiding them is a righteous project, is not the way forward, no matter how strangely acceptable unsparingly harsh call-out culture has become.

And of course it was a college administrator who got these baristas fired—what class of people has more prolifically exported capricious norms and standards under which people are called out and terminated for reasons they never would’ve imagined?

Duke should start demanding that these wronged young people get rehired. Thou shalt not frivolously get service workers fired! Everyone else: Tip your baristas. They’ve got to smilingly deal with that customer more often than you think.

For alerting me to this story, I thank @Popehat:

Update 5/10/18:

The Duke Chronicle reports that VP Moneta “made an addendum to the University's official statement in a Wednesday afternoon post on his Facebook page.”

He wrote:

It was never my intent that any of the Joe Van Gogh employees be terminated. I felt and still feel that the choice of music for the venue was inappropriate, but if my actions in any way lead to their dismissal, I apologize and hope that the JVG management consider ways to reinstate their employment with the company.

The owner of Joe Van Gogh released a statement too, which reads, in part:

We attempted to understand Duke’s position in this case, but we should have taken a different approach in making personnel decisions. As the owner of the business, I take full responsibility for Joe Van Gogh’s actions. I apologize to all of the people directly involved and those who have been touched or offended, of which there are many. We are taking steps to remedy this matter, but all company personnel issues are private and will remain private. Again, my truly sincere apologies.