When Mahlik Good decided to try Sugarwitch ice cream, he didn’t expect to find the business by walking into Beet Box. He also didn’t expect to try Beet Box’s falafel, but if a restaurant is serving a food you love, it’s hard to resist.
What he especially didn’t expect was to hear an uncensored version of “A Lot” by 21 Savage playing through Beet Box’s speakers — a song that repeats the N-word 16 times.
When he left the restaurant, he let Sugarwitch know, in passing, how the use of the word made him feel. He says it felt inappropriate in a professional setting, especially given the historical baggage the word carries and that customers can’t tell if the business owner agrees with the derogatory nature of the word. And in the national climate surrounding race, Good says hearing such lyrics was not timely.
Sugarwitch owners Sophie Mendelson and Martha Bass contacted Beet Box with their concern. From there, a conversation between Good and the Beet Box’s co-owner ensued. And it’s one that also eventually played out on Instagram. Sugarwitch later decided to relocate from Beet Box so that they could have more autonomy in the future should similar situations occur.
Benjamin Hamrah, the co-owner of Beet Box, says he opened the restaurant with the intention of shaking up the expectations of the food experience. That vision includes using as much local produce as possible, serving several different stylistic and cultural foods and playing unedited versions of the music that he and his business partner, Amanda Elliott grew up on. He says they value playing their music uncensored — and loudly — out of an appreciation for the artists’ original intent and creative expression.
Hamrah realized after his conversation with Good that he can’t expect customers to know his intent.
That’s what Hamrah says hit him hardest, and it's something he understood after talking with Good. He can not guarantee that customers visiting Beet Box do not hear uncensored racial slurs without thinking that it is acceptable to say or endorse those slurs.
On June 30, After talking with Good over the phone, Hamrah posted a parental advisory statement on Beet Box’s Instagram page that encouraged patrons to “enter at your own own aural risk.” He intended for the advisory to be a temporary action as he and his team figured out how to address the issue. However, the statement was met with backlash. Some commenters thought the statement was an insensitive defense of the lyrics in the face of the complaint. Others pointed out Beet Box’s silence about the Black Lives Matter movement prior to the statement.
Even with the advisory, Good says he doesn’t believe honoring an artist’s intent trumps maintaining a professional atmosphere in a restaurant.
“The very reason why most artists will release a clean version of their music is because they realized that is not appropriate in its raw form in all environments,” Good says. “So, as the business owner and business professional, you have to realize what's appropriate for your environment, and you are the sole person responsible for what is allowed.”
Good and Hamrah talked over the phone again, and this time, Hamrah says the conversation became more candid as the heavy emotions of the situation caught up to him. Good helped him write out an apology that was posted on Beet Box’s Instagram the next day, July 4, one that acknowledged the impact Beet Box had on the Black community by defending the use of explicit slurs in music, but not being publicly vocal about racial injustice.
The post announced Beet Box’s plans to address the issue and the reasoning for not speaking about racial injustice sooner. The restaurant is planning a virtual town hall to discuss the use of uncensored music and is also participating in the Heart of Missouri United Way Equity Challenge, a seven-week educational challenge about leading the fight against racial inequity. The restaurant also plans to highlight artists and provide education about them, to start providing context for the unedited versions of their songs.
“We've always thought that anyone that was in our space and enjoying our music was enjoying it for the same reasons that we are,” Hamrah says. “But I think it's naive to think that there shouldn’t be a certain level of education and justification that goes behind it to make sure that everyone that's in our space understands where that content is coming from.”
Though Good is still not sold on hearing the N-word in the establishment, he says he hopes Black people in Columbia will take initiative and use their voice to respond to Beet Box’s decision.
“It is the Black community's responsibility to make sure that we respond to their actions,” Good says.
Using the N-word is a debate within the Black community, with some wanting to reclaim the word and others saying that using the word, even in a casual setting, prolongs the dark history attached to it. And that debate is evident at Beet Box, with some Black customers expressing support for the unedited lyrics, Hamrah says.
No matter the decision, both Good and Hamrah have expressed goodwill toward one another — both wanting respect to guide constructive conversation about addressing hurt.
“My personal desire, not related to any particular business, is that we be considerate of other people and their emotions,” Good says. “My hope overall would just be that we are more cognizant of the decisions that we make and the impact that they have on other people, because it’s very important, especially as business owners within the community.”