Chet Hanks Joined Clubhouse. Then All Hell Broke Loose.
The rapper-son of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson joined the invite-only app. Like many talks on the elitist platform, it soon devolved into a messy exchange on race and privilege.
On Wednesday night, Chet Hanks joined Clubhouse and created the chatroom “All Love.” The actor, who’s a descendant of Hollywood royalty and perpetual fave Tom Hanks, is one of five or six recognizable names you might find browsing Clubhouse—the audio-only, invite-exclusive platform—on any given day.
Chet Hanks has made a decent career of his own after stumbling out of the blocks the way most children of famous people do. He is neither the youngest Hanks, nor the oldest; neither the most famous, nor the most talented son (Colin fills that role). For what it’s worth—and so far, it hasn’t been much—he does understand how to command the spotlight. At the Golden Globes in January, Hanks set social media ablaze with a clip of him mimicking Jamaican patois on the red carpet. Chet is also an aspiring musician who, according to his Instagram, had spent a chunk of time in Jamaica going on a “dancehall deep dive,” to paraphrase him. The responses to his antics ranged from genuine delight at him amplifying Jamaican culture in this decidedly not-Jamaican space to taunts about the middle Hanks’ seemingly endless, winding journey into Black identity. (During his tenure as the rapper “Chet Haze,” he freely used the N-word, and later apologized for it.)
As he kicked off his “All Love” room, however, he faced the critique from Jamaicans and others that he was using what’s considered Black lingo without meaningfully engaging with Black struggle. It’s a problem many white admirers (and usurpers) of Black culture face: how can they benefit from the cool factor that the culture endows while paying none of the cost?
Clubhouse faces a similar dilemma. In the past week alone, Black celebrities like Tyrese Gibson, Jermaine Dupri, Kevin Hart, and Tiffany Haddish have injected rocket fuel into its growth. What was once an experiment in changing the shape and tenor of social media conversation has quickly transformed into: “What is Clubhouse, and how can it make a billion dollars?” The creators of Clubhouse, Rohan Seth and Paul Davison, regularly appear on the app in “Welcome” rooms and other open forums acting as gentle custodians of their invention.
Here’s how it works: A Clubhouse member needs to invite a new member in order for them to sign up. I’d seen the conversations about Clubhouse on Twitter and equally dreaded the prospect of not getting an invitation and entering the fray once I did. I have pessimistic few expectations of social media platforms and had heard murmurs that Clubhouse was another clout-chasing, self-aggrandizing venue for the loudest voices in the room but not necessarily the wisest.
When I first logged in, I saw a Joe Budden-led room that made me frown. The podcast host and former rapper is an already ubiquitous presence on my feeds, and it’s not for his sage takes on modern culture. His brash wont to “speak his mind” is the simple and crude path to loudmouth profiteering in modern media. Still, the app was seamless and showed me several other rooms that I’d immediately join to eavesdrop. (You can only take the “stage” when minted by a moderator.) A friend had invited me to speak in a “love and uncommon relationships” room and I appreciated that participants only unmuted their microphones to speak when the moderator welcomed them to the stage. Other roommates remained in a kind of social media purgatory, listening to the mainstage speakers but unable to comment. There are some obvious pluses to this feature. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube, conversations on Clubhouse are only live. There is an ephemeral quality to the chats that feels like real life. You can’t go back to an argument from days ago and the platform doesn’t lend to that constant cortisol-inducing warfare of comment threads.
Despite its promises of the familial—and the New Age tech bro utopian selling points—Clubhouse is the brainchild of a magnate who has at once overlooked and delayed important community moderation safeguards. The recent celebrity craze and a glut of mischievous trolls have cooked up enough scandal that users have needled Davison and his reticent partner, Seth, to introduce verification rules and ways to suspend or ban accounts. Their permissiveness has already made room for anti-Semitic hate speech, members of the alt-right, and a sexist attack on New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz. Between these dust-ups and the appearance of disgraced music exec Russell Simmons in an October chat, one wonders whether the trade-off between scruples and omnipresence is inevitable.
The sheen of Clubhouse fully flattened when Kevin Hart joined a chatroom called “Is Kevin Hart funny??” on Friday night. He was, of course, allowed to speak on the stage and moderators encouraged questions directed at Hart himself. That created the kind of one-way communication that characterizes social media now: the more prominent users preside over a throng of followers who tend to reinforce what they’re saying and deepen the echo chamber; opposing voices get drowned out. Hart deflected from pointed questions about his humor and its tendency to exclude or deride women. The women who raised that issue were shouted down. We returned to square one.
In Chet Hanks’ “All Love” chat, the sometime rapper weathered brief resistance to his verbal performance before a flood of users (all invited to the stage) chimed in to say that he had good intentions. Hanks meant no harm, they opined, and everyone was taking his foray into Black culture and Jamaican language “way too serious.” What those coddling takes miss, however, is the history and context of unpaid service and absent attribution. When Western white culture discovers any survival tool or act of creativity from the people it oppresses, it quickly finds ways to steal and multiply the effect. That happens on an individual level, like Elvis Presley or Vanilla Ice thieving songs and language for fame, and it happens at a systemic level, like corporations using Black English to feed their brand impression goals on Twitter. Although Hanks and others would like to believe that identity is fungible and there for the taking, the long history of erasure is finally coming to bear in the present. Clubhouse can’t exist in a vacuum, and the more it grows, the more its inventors will have to face the same prickly debates of comments past.
As Hanks exited the room last night, several others formed to debrief. In one of them, a moderator offered $100 to anyone who could speak the best Jamaican patois. Chet vowed to match that amount for the winner. Apparently, by the time the winner was chosen, he had already left the room.