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Dispute over rap song leads to protest at Duke and apology from coffee shop owner

A controversy over rap music that led to the firing of two baristas resulted in anger from protesters and a flurry of apologies Wednesday as Duke University and a local coffee company tried to make amends.

The owner of Joe Van Gogh coffee company apologized for his handling of a situation at its Duke location. Two baristas were fired this week after a Duke vice president complained about profanity-laced rap music at the shop.

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Robbie Roberts, the coffee business owner, posted a statement on its website Wednesday after the employee firings had made national news. He said the company was taking steps "to remedy this matter," but did not elaborate, saying that personnel issues are private.

"Joe Van Gogh apologizes to our employees, customers and community for how we handled a situation involving our Duke University store," Roberts wrote, adding, "We attempted to understand Duke’s position in this case, but we should have taken a different approach in making personnel decisions."

By Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen protesters gathered outside the shop on Duke's campus, blasting the song that had offended Vice President for Student Affairs, Larry Moneta. The demonstration was attended by students and some Joe Van Gogh employees, including the two who were dismissed early this week.

"If Larry Moneta did not want them to get fired, then he should advocate for the employees," said Kristin Caynor, a graduate student in Duke's divinity school. "Amazingly, no one is taking responsibility for two people losing their jobs."

Carrying a boombox that looped the song in question, "Get Paid" by Young Dolph, the group made its way into the student union to Moneta's office. He allowed a few protesters in for a short conversation.

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Later, on Facebook, Moneta 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."

But in an interview, one of the employees, Britni Brown, said she didn't want her job back.

She described how she used to work at Food Lion and became a customer at Joe Van Gogh, where she made friends. She was thrilled when she got the job as a barista at the coffee shop about a year and a half ago, she said, and enjoyed meeting Duke students and faculty.

"Honestly, working here was pretty amazing," said Brown, 24, of Durham. But, she added, "I have already made my mind up that I am not returning to Duke or Joe Van Gogh."

She said she wasn't sure about her next step but that she has been flooded with messages of support. She thanked the protesters for turning up Wednesday, saying, "You don't know what this means to me, as a lowly African American barista working on a white supremacist campus."

Moneta had stopped by the shop Friday for a hot tea and vegan muffin and complained about "Get Paid," which was playing at the time. The song includes a refrain that repeats the n-word, and the f-word is sprinkled throughout the lyrics.

Brown said she had heard rap with salty lyrics at many eateries and other public spots on campus. She said the baristas had chosen a playlist that included "Get Paid," but did not specifically choose the song. "This was like an honest mistake that just happened to pop up on a playlist," she said.

When Moneta expressed his displeasure at the music, she turned it off and apologized, offering him a free muffin, she said. He insisted on paying.

She rang him up, she said, and assumed that would be the end of it. But Moneta said in an earlier statement that he had reported the incident to the director of Duke's dining services.

Brown soon got a call from Roberts, who asked her and other employees to pay careful attention to the music. She was fired on Monday, she said. "They pretty much said that Duke wanted them to terminate us, and that there was nothing that they could do and that their hands were tied," Brown said.

Duke released a statement saying it regretted "the pain this incident caused to those who look to Duke to uphold the highest values of fairness and equity to all members of our community."

The firings of Brown and her fellow barista, Kevin Simmons, was first reported by Indy Week. The story was then picked up by other local and national media.

The treatment of the Joe Van Gogh employees has touched off anger at Duke and the coffee business, which has a contract to operate the campus location. Employees said Joe Van Gogh had been a good employer that cares about diversity in hiring.

Moneta is responsible for overseeing student services including housing, dining, health care, career services, student activities, cultural centers, and event and media services, according to the university's website. Recently, he has been a proponent of free speech on campus, urging students to read a book about it.

In late April, he tweeted about an incident in which a Duke student posted something to social media that was "deeply offensive and used racist terminology." The student later posted an apology.

"While there may not be formal student conduct consequences for his actions, we are aware of and acknowledge those students and student groups holding him accountable for his behaviors," Moneta tweeted.

Some have expressed concern that the student would not be punished for using racist language, but the coffee shop workers suffered consequences for music played in the store.

Late Wednesday, Rapper Young Dolph took to social media about the Duke controversy, tweeting news stories of the events to his more than 500,000 followers. He also tweeted: "Whoever that VP is, he don’t give a dam about nobody but his self... I guess he was trying to teach the students how to be selfish I guess......... smh".

Dolph's "Get Paid" reverberated outside the student center Wednesday as people wandered by the demonstration. After a time, Joe Van Gogh baristas emerged with cups of water for the protesters, and a tray of vegan muffins.

Staff writer Zachery Eanes contributed to this report.

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