YouTube While Black—An Interview with Evelyn From the Internets
YouTuber Evelyn of the Internets took the world by storm when her reaction video to Beyonce's Lemonade became a viral sensation. Our own Karri Bentley caught up with Evelyn to chat about YouTube culture, marketing and the importance of diversity.
Content by Karri Bentley
When the world’s jaw dropped after watching Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” visual album, Evelyn Ngugi took to her camera and expressed exactly what many were feeling – passionate, exasperated and awe-inspired.
Her hilarious yet heartfelt reaction video got the attention of some of Queen Bey’s people, so Evelyn can tell you what it’s like to create grassroots content from the ground up. During Beyoncé’s latest tour, the singer showed Evelyn’s response at her concerts. The video now sits at more than 300,000 views thanks to the star’s seal of approval.
Evelyn is better known by her subscribers (or Internet Cousins as she a calls them) as Evelyn From the Internets. She’s been a fixture on YouTube for eight years, entertaining and informing her cousins along the way. Her videos range from commentary on the latest in pop culture to snack foods and black hair-care products. The Beyoncé video and several of her others have sent her subscriber list and views through the roof, reaching the coveted viral status.
In addition to her own channel, the Austin resident has launched a separate initiative with her best friend called “Austin While Black.” The channel is home to a web series chronicling the stories of the African Americans who call Austin home. Each video profiles a different person.
Evelyn’s “My First Lace Front Wig Review” video is in the top eight of her most popular posts. It’s how this cousin first discovered her. While attending SXSW, I had to take a shot at potentially meeting Evelyn in her current residence. I was beyond ecstatic when she responded to my Instagram direct message.
Armed with a notebook and my friend and Atlanta-based photographer, Lynsey Weatherspoon (along with her trusty camera), we headed over to Hillside Farmacy in East Austin for a Q&A with our favorite YouTuber to discuss her videos, goals, and her take on being a black woman in the YouTube business.
What does it mean to you to be an influencer? I work in the beauty industry as my day job and I have to find influencers. I was working in social media and now I’m a video producer, and in general I’m in marketing. So, it’s weird because I’m both the publication looking for influencers and then I’m the person publications are looking for. It’s weird cause I’m on both sides. The word influencer is kind of cringe-y. I don’t necessarily like the word influencer, because it doesn’t actually describe a skill. It doesn’t tell me what you do. I feel like I’m bad at that stuff because it is my job. I’m exhausted from doing other people’s stuff.
Has your job ever asked you to be an influencer representing your personal brand? I tell them you can’t afford me. It’s not a two-for-one.
What challenges have you faced being an African-American woman on YouTube? I heard that #YouTubeBLACK only happened because someone wrote a strongly worded letter to YouTube and said, “Listen, I am so-and-so and y’all love me, right? Why don’t you put me or any of my peers on?” If YouTube doesn’t do things like that people are going to leave. What’s the point? If YouTube becomes the mainstream media, the mainstream media is white, straight, and male. Why are we giving them so much money with our platform?
I think the difficulty of being a black woman in marketing or on YouTube is that number one, boxes. I feel like you’re always fighting whatever box people want to put you in. And it’s the same in marketing. It’s learning how to stand up for yourself and to be, not necessarily different, but to get what you deserve. Sometimes I really want to be average. But you can’t be average, you have to be above and beyond the scale a little bit. That’s the hardest thing about being black and a woman on the internet.
If I was British or Canadian, or had an accent it would be a wrap. You even see it in the beauty category, the number of black beauty YouTubers who’ve hit 1 million (followers). It’s only five. It’s all recent. And these are people who have been on YouTube for years.
There are people who don’t know there is a natural hair movement on YouTube. Which means the right people aren’t in the room. I’m on the beauty side [at work], so we have clients like L’Oreal. Black women on YouTube have single-handedly changed physical brick and mortar stores. So now L’Oreal is selling different things because of this pocket of people you didn’t know about on YouTube.
What advice would you give to other black women who might be interested in starting a YouTube channel? It’s so hard now in 2017 versus back when I started. Because the tone is different. Now YouTube is mainstream media, whereas back then it was just on the fringes. You have to come correct so hard just to be bare minimum. I would tell someone, don’t let that deter you, because the goal is to connect. And it doesn’t take much to connect. Someone will find you. In general that’s why I like the internet so much, because you can be a girl in Kansas who says “I like ketchup.” And there’ll be some dude in Berlin and he’s like, “Yes, me too!”
“Sometimes I really want to be average. But you can’t be average, you have to be above and beyond the scale a little bit. That’s the hardest thing about being black and a woman on the internet.”
How can black women set themselves apart in this mostly white, male-dominated culture of marketing and advertising? It’s really about being an advocate and asking questions. People underestimate or they don’t know the importance of being in the room. I’m in rooms as part of my day job, where a client says “we want a Latina.” And I’m the person who’s like “What do you mean?” Did you want a Jennifer Lopez? Did you want a black girl? Can you be more specific? It’s my job to get people to say what they mean. If I wasn’t in that room, who knows what would be on the presses. My goodness. I think when it comes to marketing and advertising, it really does boil down to one person in the room. If I see black Twitter rages over this “thing,” there was either nobody in the room or they didn’t listen to the one person in the room. My heart goes out to whoever that was.
Do you see progress on YouTube? I don’t know if I see progress, per se. But people aren’t leaving, so that’s good. It leads to the question: Why can’t we make the next YouTube? We pop up on all these platforms, but we don’t own the platforms. That would be the final evolution. Will that ever happen? I don’t know.
Have you ever had a moment where you wanted to give up the YouTube game? No, because I don’t do it consistently. [Laughter] I never get a chance to feel like that.
What’s next for Evelyn? People always ask me if I want being a YouTuber as my job and I don’t. But I do want to, because my background is journalism, and the thing about journalism is every day was different, wildly different. But now with marketing it’s kind of different, but not really. I talk about the same things or say the same things over and over. What’s next is figuring out how to make the internet my job. Because my goal is actually to help other people produce the stuff they want to make. So just figuring out how to do that and pay bills is the next step. I want to try doing a travel show. I just want to do so much stuff.