Black Users Made Clubhouse a Phenomenon — How Will the App Treat Them in Return?
Illustration: Davide Barco for LEVEL

Black Users Made Clubhouse a Phenomenon — How Will the App Treat Them in Return?

The voice-chat social platform skyrocketed in popularity last fall, largely due to an influx of Black users. But we’ve heard this song before.

It was the night of December 8, and a group of Black users on Clubhouse were threatening a boycott.

Meezy, 21 Savage’s manager, had created a room on the voice-chat app expressly for that purpose; from its virtual “stage,” he proclaimed in his vehement rasp that he was willing to delete Clubhouse from his phone if the company didn’t act on his demand within 24 hours. Dozens of voices spoke up, pledging to follow his lead. Even legendary DJ Clue voiced his commitment to the cause, despite being in the middle of his radio show on New York’s Power 105.1. Voices crashed over one another. Emotions were running high.

Days earlier, producer Cardo Got Wings — best known for his work on the Drake song “God’s Plan” — had found his Clubhouse account suspended without warning. That suspension led Meezy to create the room, but it was also a symptom of something much larger. What the congregation really wanted Clubhouse to understand was the power and influence Black users had already generated on the platform.

Cardo was the person who got Drake to create a Clubhouse account, someone pointed out. “People got deals off Cardo’s shit,” another said, referring to the producer’s Beat Battle room where 21 Savage, Wiz Khalifa, and Drake himself judged work from up-and-coming producers. Then a third voice cut through the noise, articulating a sentiment no one had uttered but everyone felt: “This app don’t care about us and what we’re trying to build.”

Black people weren’t just happy to be on Clubhouse — they knew it wouldn’t be as popular if they weren’t. They wanted the company to acknowledge it. They wanted to be heard.

In May 2020, Clubhouse was a Silicon Valley surprise with roughly 1,500 users and a $100 million valuation; its digital hallways and conference rooms were full of venture capitalists and tech industry professionals, most of them non-Black. By January 2021, it had exploded to 2 million users and a billion-dollar valuation. It had gotten there not because Elon Musk showed up, but because 21 Savage led discussions about what Black women wanted in dating. Because Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox was giving fellow transgender people the stage to discuss the complexities of existing as their true selves. Because Black folks from all over the world could laugh, argue, audition for a musical theater project, even do their taxes together — with the only barrier being their internet connection.

Yet, in many ways, Clubhouse is just the newest game in a sport that Black people have long dominated while simultaneously having their contributions ignored or stolen: social media. And as it continues to balloon — the platform is still both iOS- and invite-only — its growing pains are felt most keenly by its Black users. In many ways, Black creativity and community made Clubhouse the destination it is; now, how Clubhouse acts in return may well determine its future as a platform.

At first, Clubhouse feels freeing. Rooms for discussions are divided by “stage” and “audience.” If you’re on the stage, you can talk; if you’re in the audience, you can only listen. Engaging with someone only requires tapping a button to bring them onstage — and if you don’t want their opinions in your space, you can silence them just as easily.

Gone is the all-consuming quest for engagement that inspired Instagram to experiment with removing “likes.” With the audio disappearing into the ether — discussions aren’t archived — the momentary stays momentary. The permanency of momentary feelings that have inspired a nearly decade-long fight for an edit button on Twitter is outlawed. And its invite-only signup protocol decreases the likelihood of that dreaded Facebook phenomenon of encountering that middle-school ex you’d burned from your memory (though it might suggest your weed man). In a world where people have died from trolling, Clubhouse sounds practically utopian.

That may be because, at its core, it’s an admission. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth launched Clubhouse in March 2020, according to the company’s website, to be “a social experience that felt more human.” In their vision, talking with people trumped posting to them. You can’t want to make something better without admitting it was worse off. Clubhouse isn’t just an app. It’s its creators’ vision of what social media with more humanity looks like.

For its first few months, that humanity looked like Silicon Valley — where African Americans account for 3% of workers at America’s five biggest technology firms and 2% of partners at venture capital firms. “Clubhouse is a mirror,” says Katie Longmyer, managing director at creative agency Mother. “If you look at what diversity looks like in Silicon Valley, it’s reflected in a similar way on the app.”

Longmyer joined Clubhouse on July 4, 2020. At the time, the app had no more than three rooms open at once, a few thousand people cycling through, and no private rooms. It wasn’t uncommon for Just Blaze or DJ A-Trak to pop in to honor Black music and how it influenced house and hip-hop. Neither were rooms that scrutinized the outside world and put it under the Clubhouse microscope, such as the room Longmyer hosted in August after the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased and planned to exhibit works that Black artists had discounted to support racial justice charities.

You’d be as likely to hear Meek Mill discuss cultural currency with Troy Carter — the man who discovered Lady Gaga — as you’d be to hear him berate DJ Akademiks for inciting violence with his vlogs. You’d be more likely to hear 21 Savage open up about his abandonment issues with his father than you would be to hear him ever speak about it in an interview.

Slowly, thanks to new users like Longmyer, the Clubhouse mirror expanded. “There was a conscious effort to diversify not only racially, but also creatively, with people in different fields and different backgrounds,” she says. When she began noticing an influx of new Black users, the world had already witnessed two Black women pressing pause on the entire music industry in order to address racial inequities; Black bodies filling streets in protest over police killings; NBA players wearing phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “Equality” on their jerseys in front of nationally televised audiences; Beyonce letting the world know Black Is King. Clubhouse entered the zeitgeist at a time when Blackness was the center of attention; there was no way forward without embracing it.

Between September and December, a wave of users arrived that many early adopters referred to as the “Black elite”: Joe Budden, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Ava DuVernay, Karen Civil, numerous executives from major record labels and streaming services. You’d be as likely to hear Meek Mill discuss cultural currency with Troy Carter — the man who discovered Lady Gaga —as you’d be to hear him berate DJ Akademiks for inciting violence with his vlogs. You’d be more likely to hear 21 Savage open up about his abandonment issues with his father than you would be to hear him ever speak about it in an interview.

For Black celebrities who are often used for the clout of their popularity and rarely the nuance of their personality, Clubhouse offered a rare gift: the power to choose who to engage with, and about what. Whereas the open channels of most social media platforms attracted a deluge of unwanted opinions, forcing them to perform even in their everyday lives, they now had a way to express themselves to people in their industry who could understand. Similar to the Silicon Valley bubble that Clubhouse had emerged from, once Black celebrities saw the benefits of an app where they could genuinely be themselves, the beta app gained mass adoption.

Certain figures emerged as hubs of that adoption. Fadia Kader, head of music partnership at Instagram, has a direct or indirect connection with bringing Meek Mill, producer Don Cannon, Roc Nation executive Lenny Santiago, media personality Scottie Beam, and Top Dawg Entertainment president Terrence Louis “Punch” Henderson, Jr. And the folks she brought found a place they could be themselves. “We’re getting a humanized version [of celebrities] where they feel comfortable having these conversations in front of people,” says Atlantan Steve Dingle, who has managed producers of multiplatinum hits from Migos and Chris Brown, and who Kader recruited to Clubhouse. “A lot of this stuff you wouldn’t get just talking to a radio station or platform.”

Whether because of their candor or simply their presence, Black celebrities gave Clubhouse a new level of cultural clout — which, in turn, gave them a degree of power. When Cardo Got Wings first got suspended, Meezy spoke to a woman named Stephanie who allegedly works at Clubhouse. After a few days, when all she could tell him was that Cardo’s case was under review, he told her not to worry, because he’d simply be deleting the app in 24 hours — then created a room with that premise as the title. Within 10 minutes of that room opening in December, Cardo’s suspension was magically lifted. “Hopefully this was a lesson to the app,” Meezy told a room celebrating Cardo’s return, “to always have an open mind and open ear to people who use this app.”

If you were on Clubhouse on Christmas Day 2020, it would have been hard not to realize something special was happening. In a room called “Lion King: The Musical Live” the six speakers onstage had changed their profile pictures to theater curtains; one of them played people-shuffling-to-their-seats sound, establishing the proper Broadway atmosphere. One by one, other speakers came onstage, their avatars set to images of Mufasa, Nala, Timon, Pumba, Scar, and the rest of the cast of Disney classic The Lion King.

Then the show began. Five production team members cycled their avatars to display snapshots of the scenes being reenacted. Simba, Nala, and Scar all had voice doubles — so when it was time for Simba to belt out “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” the transition from acting to singing was seamless and dynamic. Chris “Boogie” Chambers, who had come to renown on Clubhouse after reading Green Eggs and Ham aloud in his husky baritone during a jam session, stole the show as Mufasa.

The reception for “Lion King: The Musical Live” was as inspirational as it was impressive. After the second showing, Emmy Award-winning director Ava DuVernay came on stage to shower them with praise and attest she couldn’t have done what they did. Roots drummer Questlove said it was the first time in his 49 years of living that he had fully taken in the Disney classic. Black people did more than entertain; as we have done for centuries, they used their collective voices to momentarily relieve people of the burden of reality. “It had nothing to do with career and everything to do with bringing joy,” says “Lion King: The Musical Live” executive producer/director Noelle Chesnut Whitmore. “This was the first time in a while that people were spending Christmas without their family and lost a lot of loved ones this year.”

“Lion King: The Musical Live” may have been a first for Clubhouse, but it was another innovation in the long history of Black people using community and creativity to gain control of their reality. The church hymns that founded gospel music were momentary reprieves from slavery. The house parties that are intoxicated afterthoughts to us now were originally “rent parties” thrown by Black tenants in the 1920s to get communal help to stave off racist housing practices.

When the internet entered homes in the mid-’90s, Black people were no strangers to the community-building that would be its foundation — and they adapted quickly.

“When we talk about how these platforms get popularized when Black people get on them, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s as old as time as far as American creativity is concerned.”

“Black people’s unique contribution and invention in the scope of social media is the building of community,” says Charlton McIlwain, PhD, the founder of NYU’s Center for Critical Race & Digital Studies. “When we go back to the early ’90s and the web, when people started to say, ‘how can we make money in this online space?’ they looked to Black folks who had already built communities in digitally networked spaces and said, ‘That’s what we want, that’s what we’ll sell.’”

As McIlwain details in his 2019 book Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Black people created a “platform for intellectual, economic, and spiritual expression of peoples throughout the African Diaspora” in 1994 with — years before AOL Instant Messenger became its own service in 1997. Black people were kiki-ing on BlackPlanet in 2001, three years before Myspace came around. Twitter, Vine, Instagram, TikTok: On all of them, Black users created memes, tropes, dances, and language that helped define today’s digital firmament — often without getting credit. Just witness 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon’s TikTok dance “Renegade,” which swept the Black online community online before the White dancers Charli D’Amelio and Addison Easterling spread it to their massive followings. When the NBA wanted someone to perform the dance at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, who do you think they invited?

“When we talk about how these platforms get popularized when Black people get on them, this isn’t a new phenomenon,” says Meredith D. Clark, PhD, a media studies professor at University of Virginia. “It’s as old as time as far as American creativity is concerned. From jazz, blues, gospel, and country music to social networking platforms. All of that stems from what is attractive and popular to Black people and the way we use those communicative tools.”

For Clubhouse to truly be the transformative platform that humanizes the social media experience, it needs to preclude the cultural thievery and toxic racism that seems all but inherent in other social media platforms. The problem arises when you step back and realize that in order for Clubhouse to do that, Clubhouse can’t be Clubhouse.

Accountability isn’t inherent to the human experience, but the fragility of human memory is. Imagine if Georgia police officer Edwin Myrick’s Facebook post about how “living in public subsidized housing” was a sign of “Black privilege” had vanished as soon as it was spewed. He’d still have a job meant to protect and serve those same Black citizens. If accountability depended on someone being there in the moment, imagine how much toxicity would go unchecked.

Black users on Clubhouse have had to live in that reality. Trees are falling in the social media forest, but with no record of their impact, there’s no way to prove that they exist.

The same principles that have spurred Black unity on Clubhouse — synchronous real-time discussion for comfort, and room-recording being outlawed to inspire candor — open the doors for racist and sexist speech and behavior to ferment virtually unchecked. Among the Black users I spoke to, many shared secondhand accounts of White people in rooms bemoaning the influx of Black people, while not knowing exactly who were in those rooms. Combine that with an invite-only system, and you’ve got the makings of a gatekeeper mentality that has been all too common among social media platforms.

“The practice of exclusion is central to the development of social media spaces,” says Clark. “Whether that’s how Facebook was initially rolled out for Ivy League colleges and then expanded to other schools, there is an opportunity for the exclusion to be misused. I’ve seen that happen with Clubhouse, where important discussions and critical questions have been raised and people invested in maintaining a certain picture of themselves silence those criticisms.”

Last October 11, Black women were the victims of this exclusionary foundation. On that day, Marcia L. Dyson, social activist and wife of Michael Eric Dyson, invited a friend of hers to Clubhouse. On stage, that friend took part in a conversation with singer LeToya Luckett and Valeisha Butterfield, an executive with the Recording Academy. The conversation was cordial; yoga was discussed. People who were in the room remember the two women saying they missed Dyson’s friend, and wished him well.

Dyson’s friend wasn’t just any new user; it was Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons.

This was one of Simmons’ first public appearances since the May 2020 release of HBO’s On The Record, a documentary centered on a series of women accusing Simmons of sexual harassment and assault. In fact, it was one of his first public appearances since 2018; after some of those women first came forward with their allegations, the embattled media mogul had exiled himself in Bali. All it took to be showered in praise again, apparently, was to have an iPhone, a Clubhouse invite, and a bubble of friends and admirers who thought he was innocent — or didn’t care if he wasn’t.

It’s this sort of tribalism, where shared personal connections insulate people from societal norms, that has protected alleged abusers like Simmons and Tory Lanez and enabled a disturbing culture of misogynoir on Clubhouse. Not only have people created rooms titled “Are Black women crap in bed?” and “Black women are the biggest coons in the Black community,” but they have attracted thousands of users in insidious groupthink sessions — many of which involve silencing Black women in those rooms with waves of vitriol.

“Clubhouse isn’t exempt from misogyny, misogynoir, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia,” says Mikeisha Vaughn, a culture writer. “It’s very present on this platform. It hasn’t disappeared because people may be scared to tarnish their image or lose their job. We see those play out in rooms with and without celebrities.”

Vaughn witnessed that onslaught of misogyny in real-time in a room titled “Is Kevin Hart Funny?” created last November to discuss the comedian’s latest Netflix special Zero Fucks Given. When Hart himself entered the discussion, two Black women — culture writers Lauren Chanel Allen and Wanna Thompson — questioned him directly about the toxicity in some of his work, including Zero Fucks Given, in which he calls his teenage daughter a “ho” for moving on from one boyfriend to another. That’s when the verbal bashing began. “Women were spoken over,” Vaughn says. “Women were gaslighted. Women were threatened. Comments were spewed of ‘You wouldn’t say that to my face.’ These are grown men and it was a very toxic environment.”

The month prior to that debacle, Vaughn had created “Pussy Rap and All of That,” a weekly Clubhouse room where she and a group of fellow Black women journalists—Robyn Mowatt, Laja H, and Kia Turner—host female rappers in conversations that showcase their full selves and tell their full stories. While artists like Erica Banks and Kodie Shane are often criticized for rapping about their sexuality, in Clubhouse they can speak on colorism in the music industry, new business endeavors, and sexual agency to women who relate and without the threat of men taking over the conversation by yelling over them. Once again, it’s Black women taking it upon themselves to protect each other from hate when no one else has.

To the company’s credit, Clubhouse releases updates and changes to its platform regularly, including a number of tools to mitigate toxicity. When you block someone on Clubhouse, that person can no longer enter rooms you are speaking in, and you are warned about rooms they are speaking in. While users receive a warning notification when they attempt to screen-record a room, Clubhouse records the audio of every room started and can use the saved audio to investigate a reported Trust and Safety violation. Additionally, the platform has implemented a one-strike policy for trolling; if someone gets onstage with the intention of disrupting conversation, they receive an immediate ban.

As well-intentioned as these attempts at moderation and user safety are, they also highlight the complexities of making a more human social experience. Clubhouse can use recorded audio of a room to investigate a violation, but it only keeps the recording if the violation is raised while the room is live — and once the room ends, the recording is forever deleted. If it’s not reported, it’s like it never happened. The platform’s blocking system can also be used as a form of suppression: New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz, who spoke out about harassment on the app last summer, recently explained how Clubhouse investor Marc Andreessen and other Silicon Valley titans have used the blocking feature to keep journalists out of their rooms.

As Meezy proved with his December 8 boycott threat, Clubhouse either recognizes the contributions of Black creators on the app or risks losing the very cultural capital that has its value in the billions. Recently, the app began testing a creator pilot program with 40 Clubhouse influencers, led by Stephanie Simon, a marketer and former consultant for Gucci. (Based on Meezy’s account, there’s reason to think Simon may have been the person who helped get Cardo’s account reinstated.) Among other matters, the pilot program aims to develop a monetization system for Clubhouse creators to benefit off their work.

Clubhouse says it doesn’t collect demographic information on its users, so it doesn’t know how many Black people are on its app or (perhaps less believably) how many are part of its creator program. Regardless, it may be that Clubhouse’s lasting legacy in the Black community will be one of neither toxicity nor transcendence, but instead the final example needed for Black creatives to forge a new social media future — one that is all our own.

“This is a different world than when we were first using Facebook to connect with one another,” says Clark. “We are finding ways to exercise our right to our creative capital so the community benefits from it. I hope to see a digital renaissance where we’re able to develop spaces for ourselves to be insulated from the kind of forces and pressures that have destroyed our connections and what we’ve built in the past.”