University official allegedly didn’t like the music in a coffee shop, forced firing of barista

Britni Brown, who is Black, claims the school also fired a white co-worker not involved in the incident to avoid charges of racism.

A Duke University official allegedly forced the school to fire a campus barista who played rap music, despite the fact that the student turned it off at his request. (CREDIT: DUKE INSIDE JOKE, SCREENGRAB)
A Duke University official allegedly forced the school to fire a campus barista who played rap music, despite the fact that the student turned it off at his request. (CREDIT: DUKE INSIDE JOKE, SCREENGRAB)

A Duke University official allegedly forced the school to fire a campus barista who played rap music inside the store last week, despite the fact that the barista immediately turned off the song at his request.

According to Indy Week, barista Britni Brown was working the cash register at Duke University’s Joe Van Gogh on Friday when Duke Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta, a regular at the coffee shop, entered the establishment amid the “afternoon rush” to order his usual, a “hot tea and a vegan muffin.” While Moneta waited in line to place his order, “Get Paid” by Young Dolph was playing over the store’s speaker system.

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The song contains a number of “f-bombs” and the phrase, “Get paid, young n—a.” According to Brown, who was in charge of selecting the music that day, the song was part of a random playlist curated by Spotify, meaning Brown had no control over the specific selection.

When he reached the counter, Moneta, who is white, told Brown, a Black woman, that the song “was inappropriate.” Brown quickly apologized and shut off the music. She then offered Moneta his vegan muffin free of charge, which Moneta declined. “You need me to ring me up for it right now,” he replied, after Brown offered him the item for free a second time.

“‘Harassing’ is definitely the word I would use. He was verbally harassing her,” said Brown’s co-worker, Kevin Simmons, who was busy making drinks at the time of the incident.

Moneta paid for his order and promptly left the store. Ten minutes later, Brown says she received a phone call from Joe Van Gogh owner Robbie Roberts, who told her he had been notified about the incident. Brown says she apologized again and “took full responsibility.”

Three days after the incident, Brown and Simmons were called into a meeting with Joe Van Gogh human resources representative Amanda Wiley and told that they were being fired.

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“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.”

She told the two that the university had “instructed [them] to terminate the employees that were working that day.” Wiley — who said repeatedly throughout the meeting that the two were “good employees” with no records of misconduct — then offered each of the employees severance if they agreed to resign, rather than be fired outright.

Simmons, who is white, said he was “shocked” by the termination. “I didn’t have any control over the music. I’m having trouble understanding how I’m responsible for this,” he said.

Brown, too, was confused about Simmons’ dismissal. “For him to be fired because of this, it is not fair. I feel like you guys were trying to cover it up as to make it not look discriminatory for firing a person of color,” she said.

Brown also defended herself against the decision, arguing that the store had no official music policy in place. “When I got hired, the only thing that was expected for the music was for it to be cool music. There was no training to make sure that your music was appropriate,” she said.

Moneta has since claimed that his involvement in the two baristas’ dismissals was limited. “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 in an email to the Duke Chronicle, the school’s student newspaper.

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Moneta pointed the blame at Joe Van Gogh for its handling of the incident. “The employees who chose to play the song in a business establishment on the Duke campus made a poor decision which was conveyed to [Joe Van Gogh] management,” he wrote. “How they responded to the employees’ behavior was solely at their discretion.”

Moneta’s version of events notably does not match the version of events presented to the two employees by human resources representative Wiley, who told the two baristas the university had demanded their termination.

In a statement on the school’s website Wednesday, Duke officials reiterated Moneta’s claims, passing the blame to Joe Van Gogh. “We appreciate [Joe Van Gogh’s] commitment to remedy the matter with the individuals involved, and regret 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,” they wrote.

In a statement on that same site, Joe Van Gogh owner Roberts offered his own apology, taking the brunt of the blame. “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.”

Roberts said the company was “taking steps to remedy this matter,” which would remain private.

Speaking with the Indy Star on Monday, Brown and Simmons, who both accepted the severance package and are now looking for other work, said they wished the situation had been resolved differently.

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“There are other options besides being terminated,” Brown said. “We could have just been moved to another shop. But Duke came in and took our livelihood.”

Simmons agreed. “It feels very crude and not at all professional,” he said.