On Monday, two employees of Duke University’s Joe Van Gogh coffee location were terminated after the vice president for student affairs complained about the rap song playing in the shop.
Larry Moneta, who regularly visits the Joe Van Gogh for a hot tea and vegan muffin, was waiting in line on Friday when “Get Paid” by Young Dolph began playing. In the shop, the employees often played music from pre-curated Spotify playlists.
Britni Brown, a Black employee who was manning the register, was in charge of the playlist the day Moneta came in. When the university official came up to the register, he told Brown the song was inappropriate, according to the Indy Week.
“The words, ‘I’ll eff you upside down,’ are inappropriate,” Moneta said, according to Brown. (It should be noted those are not the words in the song).
Although Moneta inaccurately recounted the lyrics, the song would be categorized as explicit. Due to the bad language used in the song, Brown completely understood Moneta’s comment and complied with his request to turn it off.
“Yes, of course,” Brown told Moneta. She immediately turned off the song and offered him his vegan muffin for free.
“No,” Brown recalls Moneta saying. “Ring me up for it.”
When Brown apologized for a second time and offered to comp his breakfast, Moneta hastily responded.
“You need me to ring me up for it right now,” Moneta insisted.
Kevin Simmons, the white barista also on duty, said Moneta’s tone was aggressive.
“Harassing is definitely the word I would use,” Simmons told Indy Week. “He was verbally harassing her.”
No more than 10 minutes after Moneta left, Brown received a call from Robbie Roberts, the owner of Joe Van Gogh. Roberts told Brown that Robert Coffey, the director of dining services which oversees this Joe Van Gogh location, had called about the incident.
Brown took full responsibility for Moneta’s experience and apologized again.
However, on Monday morning, Brown and Simmons were called into Joe Van Gogh’s Hillsborough office and asked to resign.
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.
“I’m just kind of shocked,” Simmons told Wiley in the meeting. “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 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.”
While the song does include explicit language, Brown said she was never made aware of any policies regarding the music that played in the shop.
“When I got hired, the only thing that was expected for the music was for it to be cool music,” Brown told Indy Week. “There was no training to make sure that your music was appropriate.”
On Tuesday, Moneta emailed a statement to the Duke Chronicle that said he “found [the song] quite inappropriate for a working environment that serves children among others.
“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,” he wrote.
Although Moneta told the Chronicle that the decision to fire Brown and Simmons was entirely on Joe Van Gogh, the owner offered them their jobs back on Wednesday.
Roberts released a statement apologizing for how the company handled the incident.
"We attempted to understand Duke’s position in this case, but we should have taken a different approach in making personnel decisions," Roberts said.
"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."
It remains unclear whether Brown and Simmons will return to their jobs.
(Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images)