If you’ve ever watched one of Evelyn Ngugi’s YouTube videos on natural hair care or her food reviews, or even her cultural commentaries and personal diaries, you’re basically her cousin on her Internet side — her #InternetCousin, as she says. But while she has made a career of telling stories and encouraging others to do the same, Evelyn From the Internets, as she is known, sometimes has a hard time telling her own.
The 29 year-old internet star and daughter of Kenyan immigrants will tell you it’s hard to mark progress when there’s no “next grade” to progress to, or tangible career milestones to shoot for. “Sometimes I think about it, and I don’t know if I am a good student and I made it easy for my parents, or if my parents created me to be a good student,” she says, adding that she naturally enjoyed school, but her father in particular “was very adamant about getting A’s — not just good grades, getting A’s.”
You literally only have one job, and that’s to go to school.
She was raised under the mantra that “You literally only have one job, and that’s to go to school.” And oh, how lucky she was to be able to focus on that one job in a stable house, with everything she needed to succeed when other children in her Fort Worth neighborhood were having to go out and get jobs on top of school.
But that didn’t stop Evelyn from creating her own “job” as a TV host via home videos as a child — one that would be her actual job as an adult. She dragged her brother along for the ride, making cooking videos, documentary-style shows where they’d follow around people they knew with a camera, then burned their “shows” onto DVDs. (At five years younger than her, Evelyn’s little brother, Steve, was “just young enough to do whatever I said, but old enough to contribute,” Ngugi says.)
“Sometimes I would record like radio shows on cassette tapes, and I would cut the music on and try to be a DJ, a host,” she said. “Really anything that let me talk, I would imitate it.”
When it was time to start thinking about college, and what she would study — the emphasis on getting A’s to satisfy her father paid off: Evelyn graduated in the top 10% of her high school class, earning a seat at the University of Texas at Austin — she decided she would pursue Magazine Journalism. Though she didn’t necessarily want to work for a magazine, she did want to tell long-form stories about people. She thought she might like to “be a cameraman for National Geographic or some other non-problematic place.” Or maybe she’d do music journalism.
During her sophomore year at UT, Ngugi started posting natural hair videos on YouTube. The platform was still “kind of the Wild Wild West” back then in 2008, she says, but she quickly learned that it was a place to find and build community. Social media gave her a platform to do the things she had been doing since she was a child in her parents’ living room, and she had found her niche.
I’m definitely drawn to the aspect of creating something from nothing.
“I’m one of those people who, it’s like if I don’t do this, I can’t do anything else. I might not have known what job I would have, but I’ve always known what industry, or what general concept of industry I would be in,” she says. “I’m definitely drawn to the aspect of creating something from nothing.”
She and her college bestie, Doyin Oyeniyi — who also majored in journalism at UT — realized that even though they had spent four years in Austin as students at the university, they didn’t know anything about the city, or how they fit into it. “UT is really good at making its students feel that UT is a city, and not part of a larger community,” Ngugi says. The realization came around the time it was being reported that Austin was the fastest-growing city in the U.S., but the only major city in the country with a declining black population.
Ngugi and Oyeniyi decided to create a 10-episode webseries, “Austin While Black,” to tell the stories of those men and women whose stories they feared were being erased in the narrative. While it was true that the statistics meant Black people were actively leaving, “we also don’t want to end up erasing the people who are here,” Ngugi says.
They saw it as “being a good neighbor” — telling “the story of that declining population through the eyes and the voice of the people who are still here.” For instance, in the narrative of gentrification and Black flight out of the city, many were being vilified for selling their homes in East Austin. But no one was asking “were people even proud of owning a home in the East Side, because of the way they got there,” Ngugi says. “It was highkey forceful relocation. Are you proud of living in a place where you were forcefully put? Are you ready to just get the hell out?”
Understanding that most things are a lot more nuanced than people think is a key part of good storytelling, says Ngugi. And she is excited about the opportunity to entertain while telling stories and reminding people “of all the amazing things black people have done and created, in spite of their environment in this country” through her new show, “Say It Loud,” which premieres August 26 on PBS.
With over 600 videos online, Ngugi says she’s always fascinated by “what catches on, what doesn’t, what did you like to do, and what was a happy accident.” She would love to do sketches and higher production videos, to incorporate more people in Austin who are doing more things in media, but for now she’s a one-woman act — with occasional help from her little brother.
“Being in the online video space is kind of weird, because Austin is known for traditional film and stand-up comedy, and I never know where internet people fit into that,” she says.
In her dream world, she would be in a writer’s room working on a show that is in production. (“I have to be real specific,” she says, “Because a lot of stuff gets written but it doesn’t get made.”) In terms of what that show might look like, she’s not totally sure. It would be “definitely Black,” if she had her way, but “it could even be something like a Modern Family to like an Atlanta. I would just want to make something that will entertain people,” she says.
At the end of the day, “Evelyn From the Internets” is an internet persona, but it doesn’t fully capture the person she is. And, most days, Ngugi herself is still trying to figure out how to capture the person she is, in real life. She is a first-generation Kenyan American, who loves to cook and has eclectic music tastes — her current heavy rotation list might go from Nigerian Afrobeats sensation Rema’s “Dumebi” to Steve Lacy (“I like Steve Lacy for the chill, California vibe,” she says), to Brock Hampton, “and every once in a while, I’ll hit ‘em with some Stevie Wonder, some oldies,” she says. She watches a lot of YouTube and a lot of TV.
Most people assume she is an extrovert, but she says she is not. “I make videos, I talk to myself all day,” she quips. “That’s not really extrovert behavior.” But she also hates being called shy, which people tend to assume of introverts. And in real life, she prefers listening to talking, and considers herself “pretty observant.”
At the end of the day, “I’m just a girl in Austin, TX,” she says. “I’m really into comedy, humor, jokes, I love making people laugh, I love to laugh.”