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DJ's Firing Over Apparent Ban On Hip Hop At Lawrenceville Bowling Alley Sparks Protest

Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA News
Arsenal Lanes is located on Butler Street in the commercial heart of Lawrenceville.

The fallout continues over a popular Lawrenceville bowling alley’s firing Sunday of a DJ who posted on social media his photo of a sign there banning rap and hip hop music.

On Tuesday, two days after DJ Paul Guellard was let go from Arsenal Bowl, two other DJs there resigned in protest.

“We do not agree with the actions taken on Peter regarding his dismissal for posting the photo of the sign,” said Tara Kirkman, a longtime DJ at Arsenal who resigned along with her husband, Dan Kirkman. “We think that was a little extreme, and frankly, the way they handled it … I feel like they could have addressed it a little differently.”

Late in the day Wednesday, in response to an emailed question about Guellard, an Arsenal spokesperson was not clear about the DJ's firing, saying, “We are in the process of determining whether or not to retain his services in the future based on his ability to do his job (i.e. not play music with explicit lyrics).”

Credit Peter Guellard
The sign posted at Arsenal Bowling Lanes that sparked the controversy. DJ Peter Guellard says he was fired from the venue for posting this photo on Sunday, Aug.19.

Kirkman was among the first there to see the sign taped to the mixing desk of the DJ booth, when she arrived for her Saturday-night shift at the Butler Street venue. It was a computer printout that bore the venerable bowling alley’s logo and read, “Attention, DJs: Do NOT play rap/hip hop (This includes requests).” It was signed, “Mgmt.”

Kirkman said she was upset by the sign, but it was Guellard, who DJ’d the Sunday early shift, who photographed it and posted to Facebook with the comment, “Got a note from the management.” A few hours after his shift ended, Guellard said, he received a text message from the DJ who had hired him in October saying that Arsenal had terminated his services, and requesting that he take down the post. Guellard--who declines to name the other DJ--refused to delete the post.

The post, however, went viral. It was private at first, but Guellard later made it public. Commenters on social media accused Arsenal Bowl of racism. “This is a textbook example of coded language and institutional racism,” said Lori Beth J on Yelp, which was flooded with one-star reviews for the bowling alley.

On Monday, Arsenal began responding to such comments with the statement:

“Our goal is to create a warm and welcoming environment for all customers, and we have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. Our entertainment is intended to capture the fun from the heyday of the classic rock bowling era. With that in mind, we generally focus on rock and roll music and closely related genres. We are looking into this specific situation now to confirm exactly what occurred, but moving forward, we'll strive to ensure that any communication to DJs focuses on what the evening's bowling experience should include instead of exclude.”

A phone message left at Arsenal for owner Paul Buncher on Wednesday had not been returned by press time. However, in response, the bowling alley emailed WESA a revised version of the earlier statement that included the language, “We sincerely apologize to all of our customers, employees, third-party contractors and the community for unintentionally offending anyone with this sign. We take full responsibility for it.”

Both Guellard and Kirkman said Arsenal Bowl had long had an informal rule prohibiting hip hop. “At the very beginning of my employment, I was told not to play hip hop,” said Guellard.

However, both DJs said they interpreted the rule as meant to avoid broadcasting explicit language over the bowling alley’s PA. This was especially pertinent to Guellard’s shifts on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, which included lots of young children as customers. Kirkman, by contrast, worked 21-and-over nights and said she often played radio edits of hip-hop tracks, and had never received any complaints about them from either customers or staff.

Credit Arsenal Bowl / Facebook
A Facebook post on the Arsenal Bowl page from Wednesday, Aug. 22 at 2:28 p.m.

Guellard and Kirkman both said they’d never had any contact with Buncher himself, and that all their orders came from other Arsenal managers, whom they declined to name.

In an article published online Tuesday in the Pittsburgh Current, Buncher said “that he recently ‘leaned’ on his managers after receiving continued complaints about adult language in the lyrics of some music played at the establishment.”

After a phone message was left for Buncher on Wednesday, Arsenal responded further via email to a series of questions from WESA.

Asked who created and posted the sign, a spokesperson wrote, “The staff member who posted the sign (specifying music not to be played) did not come forward. Regardless, it shouldn’t have been created or posted. It was wrong, and we are sorry for unintentionally offending some members of our community with this sign. Moving forward, we will provide better guidelines to our staff and manager on how to communicate with DJs and other contracted staff.”

Asked whether Arsenal has a policy of excluding rap and hip hop, the spokesperson responded, Our staff has varying tastes in music across a very wide spectrum. … But at the end of the day, we cannot play any music that contains potentially offensive language. … Some of the Hip-Hop and Rap tracks that were played here contained potentially offensive language, and while the sign we posted was wrong, we were simply attempting to better serve our customers by playing appropriate music.”

Kirkman acknowledged that Arsenal’s overall goal seemed to be to ban explicit language. But, she added, “That was my understanding what they didn’t want there, but they framed it by saying, ‘no hip hop or rap.’”

Many commenters on Facebook called for a boycott of Arsenal Bowl. And at least one protest is planned. Justin Maddey, an activist who lives in East Liberty, plans to show up outside the bowling alley on Thursday and blast rap music, including the new album by rapper Young Thug.

Maddey said he “got kind of an angry reaction” to Guellard’s post and wanted to draw attention to the matter. He says he’s seen similar "no rap" policies for DJs and jukeboxes around Pittsburgh. He also likens it to dress codes at bars that exclude “baggy jeans or backwards hats, things like that.”

Maddey's plan for a musical protest, to begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, is “we’re going to be just like playing it loud, and having some picket signs and everything right outside the [Arsenal] door, letting people know what their polices are there."