Joe Van Gogh Coffee will leave Duke amid strife over rap music complaint

The owner of Joe Van Gogh Coffee is closing his shop on the Duke University campus, he said Friday, to preserve the company’s “brand independence without conditions.”

Company owner Robbie Roberts said in a statement on the Joe Van Gogh website that the decision would be effective immediately and that all employees of the Duke shop would be offered jobs at other stores or in the production offices.

That includes, he said, two baristas who were fired Monday after Duke’s vice president for student affairs, Larry Moneta, complained about rap music that was playing in the store during his stop there for a drink and a snack. While he was in the shop the previous Friday, the song “Get Paid” by Young Dolph came on through an online music streaming service. Lyrics to the song are sexually explicit and include the n-word, references to drug use and to women as "b*****s."

Moneta told barista Britni Brown the music was inappropriate and asked her to turn it off. She did so, and offered to give him his usual vegan muffin free of charge. He declined, according to the Duke Chronicle.

After leaving the shop, Moneta contacted Duke Dining Services, which oversees the university’s contracts with vendors such as Joe Van Gogh Coffee. According to Indy Week, Robert Coffey, executive director of dining services, then called Roberts, the coffee shop owner, who called the shop and asked Brown about the incident. On Monday, Brown and Kevin Simmons, who was working with Brown when Moneta came into the shop, were called into Joe Van Gogh’s Hillsborough office for a meeting with the company’s human resources representative, Amanda Wiley.

Indy Week, which got an audio recording of the meeting, said Wiley told the pair that “Duke University has instructed us to terminate the employees who were working that day.” A manager at the Duke shop has said she initially was told that Brown would have to be let go, but then was told Simmons also would need to go.

In an email to the Chronicle, Moneta contradicted Wiley, saying the company fired the baristas on its own.

“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. How they responded to the employees’ behavior was solely at their discretion,” Moneta told the Chronicle.

Brown, the barista who was serving Moneta that day, is black. The rapper whose song offended Moneta is black. Simmons, Brown’s co-worker, is white. Students have speculated that Simmons’ firing was done in an attempt to preclude claims of racial bias against Brown.

The incident has renewed a number of simmering concerns:

  • about Moneta, who already was being criticized for insensitivity in his wording of an April email to students encouraging them to participate in a survey about campus sexual assault and harassment;
  • about the way contract employees are treated at Duke, where they lack some of the workplace protections that full-time university employees enjoy;
  • about race relations at Duke, whose student body is less than 10 percent African American.

The Chronicle said the issue made it to Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show” Thursday night. As part of a segment he called “Tolerance Tips,” the comedian said, “Hold on. If we’re allowed to complain about the music at coffee shops, I would like a warrant signed out for Michael Buble’s arrest.”

Offering advice on how white people can learn to be more tolerant, Colbert had one tip: “Stop being paranoid jerks.”

This week, students have protested at the coffee shop and at Moneta’s office on campus.

In response to the protests and national news coverage of the incident, Roberts apologized for firing the baristas and offered to rehire them. Duke University President Vincent Price apologized that Moneta’s complaint had resulted in the firings. Price said the events had illustrated — again — that Duke has “more work to do to make our community the dynamic, diverse and welcoming community of students, faculty, and staff we aspire it to be.”

In his release, Roberts indicated the events had made him rethink being in business on campus.

“During the past several days, I have reflected on our core values and what I want to embrace and advocate as a small business owner,” he wrote. “Joe Van Gogh has always been about bringing people together, not driving them apart. We are open to all people and we value people over our profits. We always have. For years, we have nurtured these values to the communities we serve, specifically through the strengths and talents of our staff of baristas.

“I want to thank Joe Van Gogh employees and customers and everyone who has shared their candor with me during this period. I am grateful to live in a society where all voices — positive or not — can be heard and met with understanding. I hope that we can become a more tolerant society by working through difficulties such as this one.”

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