The internet is not always a gentle place for Black women. It can be cruel — it can be kind, sometimes, too, but that kindness can devolve all too quickly into a sort of obsessive fandom that catapults people against their will to unbearably high standards of celebrity. But over the past year, a truly safe space has evolved where Black women can come and speak their minds honestly, openly, and without judgment: Cocoa Connection on Clubhouse.

This community has blossomed to a regular audience of thousands daily — without artifice or pretension, and the result feels more like a family reunion than anything. And yet, it’s also one of the most consistently programmed clubs across the entire app. Their rooms are more often than not hitting the top of hallways across the US even without the stage presence of celebrities or “whales.”

Our internal Clubhouse team was already aware of founders and moderators Noelle Renee, Tianna Chin, and Gena Renee – but they really caught our attention when thousands flocked to their daily rooms to process the unfolding of the Derek Chauvin trials. Given their skillful moderation across even the most challenging subjects, we figured they probably had a background in professional speaking or moderation. In fact, Tianna, Gena and Noelle are self-described girls next door, if the girls you live next to are also incredibly accomplished, brilliant, charismatic women. Noelle is an attorney who volunteers for Big Brother Big Sister. Tianna is an educator who just received her Ph.D.  And Gena is a healthcare administrator who just completed her Masters. Despite these demanding day jobs, they can still be found on Clubhouse for Morning Tea every day (though they’ve started allowing themselves weekends off). It’s that dedication that makes Cocoa Connection a consistent favorite.

Long time listener, first time Clubhouse blog interviewer Fadia Kader spoke with Noelle, Gena and Tianna to find out more about their CH family tree, what makes their audience tick, and the dream rooms they hope to host some day.

Fadia Kader: How did you all meet and wind up on Clubhouse together?

Tianna: Actually my podcast co host, his name is Matt, he added me, then I was like “Noelle, I don't know what this is but I'm gonna add you.” And so I invited Noelle and then Noelle invited Gena. And really it was Gena who first went into rooms to listen, and then got us more involved. That’s the family tree.

Fadia: Gena, you’ve said you can be more on the shy side — were you surprised that you liked being on the app?

Gena: No, because I love to listen. One talent I do have is that I can go into a space and feel it out. But for me, the stars just aligned when I first got on. I was off work, I was going in rooms, and I was getting frustrated with the way some conversations were going, because I could see there was such potential. There were some funny conversations, it was entertaining, but I wanted to have some more serious conversations. I was looking for connections that could be made and I just kept sending Noelle and Tianna different rooms. And eventually, they finally took the bait because I wasn't gonna let up on it.

Photographed by Giovanni Mourin

Fadia: That's the energy, come with it Gena! That’s the energy I'm about. Okay though, so how would you describe your philosophy on programming the club? How much is spontaneous?

Gena: It's a mixture. We have a running list of rooms, ideas, concepts, things that we want to talk about. I think more so lately, our rooms have been a little less structured and it's been more of a “here's the topic, we're going to put it on the calendar and see where it goes.” But there's been some that have been extremely planned out well in advance, like Dear Black Diary (shout out to Nikia & Akia for curating that amazing space). And Noelle does a good job at keeping us organized for our show Morning Tea, coming up with the stories and having backups…

Fadia: How would you describe the Cocoa community? What kind of people come through?

Noelle: Our audience is so unique. We had a conversation with them recently for about 45 minutes to ask them what they like about the club, so we can truly understand why they keep coming back to the space every day. And one of the things that they mentioned is that we give them the space to be themselves authentically. For many of our listeners, they've searched their whole lives for a space where they could be themselves and not this, you know, certain type of Black person or certain type of Brown person, certain type of Hispanic person. When they come here, we just make space for them to be themselves. And I will say that we see a lot of intellects from many different walks of life. Just looking at our guest mods, we have police officers, entrepreneurs, educators, HR professionals, it's a nice mix of people. When I was at NYU for undergrad I always liked that it was a huge melting pot, our audience reminds me of that… I appreciate that our listeners can be super unpredictable, but very loving and authentic.

Gena: They are themselves and they’re honest — that’s the best I could put it.

Noelle: A huge shoutout to our team of mods (our family) that come everyday and help us to curate great conversations. We love y'all. Thank you Nikia, Akia, Monica, Alexea, Mary, Nieika, Ray, Reggie, Steven, Ashley and Bex. And special shout out to our resident mom, my actual mother, Mama Tee — she has embraced all of our members as her sons and daughters, she definitely helps foster the family environment.

Photographed by Giovanni Mourin

Fadia: Maybe this is a crazy question but I gotta ask, ladies, do you consider yourself influencers?

Gena: I definitely do not. I consider Noelle an influencer.
Tianna: Yeah! I would say right now, I definitely have to give Gena and Noelle their flowers, for being influencers because I've been MIA for the last few months. I’ve been deep in these dissertation streets instead of the Clubhouse streets.

Fadia: Okay Noelle, are you an influencer?

Noelle: I really just like to talk. But I do realize that my voice has power. Sometimes I could be talking and everybody goes silent. If I say “okay, I'm gonna shut this room down for today,” everybody just cools down. And if I say “hey, we're raising money for this fundraiser,” people send money - the CC family really walks it like they talk it. So, I do recognize that I have an influence...but I don't really know what that comes with really. I'm like, “sh*t, I don't want any more pressure. I just want to continue to be me.” Like, now I gotta look cute when I go to Walmart? But you know, it's new. It's interesting.

Fadia: All three of you have important day jobs — do you find it strange ever to switch between a professional mode and Clubhouse? Like Clubhouse gets wild, is that hard?

Noelle: Oh, listen, the code switching that I have to do between my job and Clubhouse is real. Honestly we say that we let people come into our rooms and get their sh*t off. This means even if I don't agree with you, you can come in and say whatever you want. But sometimes I have to get in people's asses, I like to think of myself as an equal-opportunity-get-in-that-asser. And so yes, it is very difficult to do the switch, especially because we do rooms during the day. So I have to be like, y'all, I have a meeting at 11, now I have to put my attorney hat on! The other day, I was on a Zoom call and I tried to mute the other attorney and I caught myself saying “One Mic”... it was priceless.

Fadia: You are a professional, you know, because I've heard you in the room gettin’ on somebody’s ass at one point. I appreciate that.

Fadia: What other kinds of abilities or values from your lives do you bring into the rooms?

Gena: Family values, for me. We’ve created a family environment — a place where we could come together and share our thoughts and our perspectives, a place where you can be raw and unfiltered. That's something that I have within my family, and I know from the years of knowing Noelle and her family that that's something she has in her relationship with her mom. But not everyone has that, and people should have a place where you can be yourself and feel loved and accepted.

Fadia: Last question, big question. Each of you tell me what is the dream Clubhouse room you’d want to host?

Noelle: I do want to do more interviews — I want to talk to Mary J. Blige! Her story is so impactful from substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health struggles - her path to being the Mary J Blige wasn’t easy but her story -- her truth-- saved a lot of lives. Plus, she’s my favorite artist to sing karaoke to.

Tianna: For me, something related to Black Lives Matter. I’d love to talk with Angela Rye…

Noelle: Yes! Honest to God, that type of education room with Angela Rye would be phenomenal and it would also make us think about collective actions we can do together.

Gena: I’m getting in my healthcare bag, I would love someone at the level of Dr. Fauci. We talk a lot about healthcare in our rooms, especially a lot of the issues unique to Black people, healthcare disparities and the social determining factors of health. So yeah, I’m aiming big and that would be my dream.

Follow Cocoa Connection on Clubhouse here.