Black Women on YouTube Transform the Internet and Challenge Society

Since launching in 2005, YouTube has become one of the largest and most important platforms for producing original video content online. At the outset, YouTube was primarily a place to watch music videos and silly skits. During the last decade, however, it has expanded into a leading news site and plays a prominent role in social justice campaigns. It is not surprising that when discussing social justice and feminist media on the platform, Black women are leading the way. Their production of funny, thought-provoking, and often-times illuminating videos on various topics are setting the standard for the industry. These women include a Kenyan-American who uses humor, a self-described documentarian and storyteller, and a digital advocate committed to the liberation of Black people.

Black women on YouTube are accentuating the idea of the personal being political by creating positive and self-affirming work for us and by us.

One such unique contributor is Evelyn Ngugi, a YouTuber who uses humor to explore her Kenyan-American heritage. Her work also explores the conundrum of having a problematic fave, traveling while Black, and the promotion of Black-owned companies and products, to name a few.

Beginning every video with “What’s up YouTube world, it’s me, Evelyn,” she disarms her viewers and brings them into her world. Ngugi has a degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and experience working as a social media manager. She certainly knows her way around the social media space. Her videos range from commentary on pop culture events, to a hilarious food review series called #smackyolip, and vlogs on everything from her year being #funemployed to life in Austin Texas. What started out as a college video diary over a decade ago has grown into a bevy of insightful, funny, and culturally aware monologues, vlogs, and skits. Her experience and work life has led to collaborations with companies like Naturally Curly and PBS Digital. Ngugi also received a co-sign from superstar Beyonce who caught wind of Evelyn’s review of Lemonade, and, in turn, featured a clip of it on her tour that year. Evelyn rejoiced exclaiming, “I don’t need a Linkedin, Beyoncé knows who I am!” Her reaction video went viral, racking up over 585,000 views and made national news in publications such as Essence, Buzzfeed, and Refinery29.

Evelyn says there was no big catalyst to her video making career. Like so many other kids her age, she dreamed of seeing her face on the screen. Pretending to have a TV show, she recorded videos and burned them to dvds. When YouTube emerged, the decision to begin uploading videos was a no-brainer. “When I started in 2008-ish, there wasn’t as much importance placed on deciding to ‘deliver content.’” In her humorously sarcastic way she goes on, “Issa website where you can upload videos, so I did!”

A first generation, American-born Kenyan, Evelyn uses humor to explore various parts of her life and culture. “Comedy uses close observation to reveal how absurd everything is. I don’t know why I’m drawn to it, but I know I literally have no other way of being,” she told The North Star.

When it comes to her channel, Evelyn likes to go with the flow, posting what she wants, when she wants, often taking long breaks between uploads. “We can’t be out here letting a website stress us. It’s important to live life so you have stories to tell in the first place.” Most recently she served as the host for the PBS Digital show “Say it Loud,” a video series that promotes Black culture, context, and history. For now, Evelyn’s plans are fluid, she’s focused on getting more of her ideas out into the world, as well as remembering to write in her gratitude journal.

Seren Sensei, another YouTuber, tells me, “My intended audience is Black. I solely create for us.” A freedom fighter for today’s Black millennials and youth, Washington, DC native Seren Sensei’s resume reads like an abnormally long book subtitle—but in a good way. In addition to creating video content, she is a writer, cultural critic, public speaker, philosopher, and panelist with a total commitment and a serious love for the Black community.

Since 2014, Seren has used YouTube as a vehicle to advocate for the social, political, and economic advancement of Black men and women. “I create what I call, ‘race-based content,’ so everything I do is informed by my identity as a Black woman and a descendant of American Chattel Slavery.” She creates op-ed videos at the intersection of race, politics, pop culture, and gender. Seren began writing politically informed essays on Tumblr before migrating over to YouTube at a reader’s suggestion. The move proved successful. Video served to make her content digestible and easier to access. On the appeal of video, she says, “Video is essentially a living, breathing archive of an event. It is an intimate connection with events preserved in time and space.”

While Seren is appreciative of her time on YouTube, she thinks they have a long way to go in supporting Black content creators. “The platform favors advertiser-friendly content, which tends to skew towards ‘family-friendly’: hair, makeup, nails, comedy, things of that nature. Creators existing outside of those parameters have a tough time breaking through, and Black creators outside of those parameters have an even TOUGHER time.”

Nonetheless, she is busy, continuing to produce the opinionated and radical pro-Black work, which is her trademark. She is currently filming the second season of a documentary series on Black culture, entitled, The [Black] Americans, a talk show exploring issues pertaining to Black Americans specifically. Seren is also constantly writing essays, reviews, and cultural critique, as well as applying to film school. Hallease Narvaez, 28, is a filmmaker, self-described storyteller, and uploads content to YouTube. Hailing from San Antonio, Texas, Hallease bought her first camcorder when she was just 13. “I would make little skits and follow my family around, not realizing what I was doing was essentially vlogging.” Soon, she was bitten with the film bug, taking classes in the discipline throughout high school, and eventually majoring in it in college. Initially, Hallease started her self-titled YouTube channel as a way to flex her creative muscles beyond the confines of her day job. Her content ranges the gamut from vlogs about life as a self-employed freelancer to reviews on everything from tech gear to DIY menstrual products, loc maintenance, and documentary-style series like the aptly-titled “Trying to Be Somebody,” a show where she conducts sit-down interviews with Black professionals about work-life balance. Hallease’s relatable and down to earth content has no doubt found an audience among Black American women looking to see representations of themselves online.

Last year she participated in the Creators for Change program. “It’s interesting, when they asked us to pitch different ideas, I was at a loss for what I wanted to do my topic on. A woman came up to me and asked me about my headwrap before handing me a Jehovah Witness packet.” It was after this chance encounter that Hallease got the idea for a documentary series on culture, identity, and hair coverings. “In America, we’re very sensitive to women covering their hair for religious purposes, but people cover their hair for lots of other reasons.”

Most recently, she was a producer and editor for the PBS Digital show “Say it Loud.” Though her profile is rising, she hesitates to try to grow the channel in any one direction. “My job is my company and other projects I’m hired to create. The channel is just for me.” Recognizing the lack of support for Black creatives on the platform in 2016, the first ever #YouTubeBlack event fostered an effort to combat racial inequalities existing on the site.

Over 100 Black creators from all over the world were invited to Los Angeles for a weekend of workshops, networking, and reflection. In 2015 comedian and YouTuber Akilah Hughes wrote an op-ed for Splinter criticizing YouTube for their lack of promotion of Black and brown content creators, despite claims of being a website for the masses.

Since then, a second #YouTubeBlack event was held at Howard University along with a London-based offshoot of the event, and the rollout of various programs designed to address the diversity problem, including Creators for Change, a one-year fellowship for YouTubers who focus on social issues. Today, Black women continue to use YouTube as a medium for change. In this way, they are doing what they’ve always done--using whatever is at their disposal to make their voices, desires, and needs heard.

About the Author

Niesha Davis first began writing love poems as a teenager. Since then, she has published articles and essays for various outlets, including Bust, Bitch, Women's Health, and The Huffington Post.

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she currently resides in Chiang Mai Thailand. Follow her on Twitter @brwnandabroad.