A Duke University VP was right about a vulgar rap song. Then he got it all wrong.

Protesters gathered at the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop on Duke's campus in support of two baristas who were fired after a complaint from Duke Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta.
Protesters gathered at the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop on Duke's campus in support of two baristas who were fired after a complaint from Duke Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta. Special to the Observer

Larry Moneta’s sin wasn’t that he found it inappropriate that a song with the N-word was playing in a coffee shop at Duke University. It was that the Duke administrator failed to understand that it was he who needed to learn, not just the two baristas who were fired after he complained — a mistake too many people in positions of power too frequently make.

Moneta walked into a Joe Van Gogh, where he was a regular customer. While he waited for his hot tea and vegan muffin, he heard the song “Get Paid” by rapper Young Dolph playing. It repeatedly uses the N-word, though not in a derogatory way, and uses crude terms to refer to women and sex.

I have a 16-year-old son who has been crafting rap songs on his computer in our dining room the past couple of years. I would not be happy if he produced one like “Get Paid” and have made that clear to him. I don’t even want him and his 13-year-old sister listening to such songs produced by others, though I don’t spend much time policing their music choices. Such songs are unnecessarily explicit, glorify demeaning images and are misogynistic. “Get Paid” is bad; the video, with half-naked women presented as though they are just a collection of enhanced body parts designed specifically for the pleasure of men and boys, is worse.

That’s why I can’t join others in condemning Moneta as just another privileged, older white man whose racist ears can’t stand black music. I’m a 45-year-old black dude who grew up on hip-hop, and I can barely stomach the modern-day version of such music, either. It's music that says less about black people than a specific subculture and musical genre.

But black people a generation older than me were convinced the music I listened to came straight from hell and would put me on a path straight there. They told us so, often with the force of a belt to the backside. I remember loving songs for their rhythm, their ability to make me move and feel good, feel connected to something larger, not for lyrics that often were just as misogynistic as those in “Get Paid.” Those songs did not turn me into a man who disrespected women, which is why I wouldn’t stop my son from expressing himself in ways with which I disagree — once he is responsible for himself. My job is to mold him into the best version of himself while he’s under my care, with the hope that he’ll become an even better version once he understands the society he’s navigating and figures out why he’s been privileged with life.

That’s something Moneta seems to have forgotten, that his job as a top university administrator requires him to use his parental instincts as much as his stack of degrees. It made sense that he inquired about why such a song was played so prominently in a public space. He went wrong by turning a potentially teachable moment into a cultural landmine by complaining instead of accepting the barista’s apology. Had he engaged in a discussion about the song and why it might be more appropriate to play in some places and not others, about why young men and women of all ethnicities enjoy it, about the different uses of the N-word – why some are offensive, why others aren’t – he could have gained valuable insight into his students that could have made him more effective at his job.

As this nation continues hurtling towards majority-minority status, such cultural misunderstandings will increase. The best way to prepare is to be quick to learn, slow to complain.