For many people, your early 20s are synonymous with finding yourself, discovering your passions, and working odd jobs while trying to make sense of it all. For Karena Evans, however, it’s a time to embark on a quest for global domination. The Toronto-based multi-hyphenate talent is one of the most sought-after directors in the music business. And she’s only 23.
Evans has been employing her naturally creative eye to make music videos for the better part of five years. SiR, Belly, and Anders are just a few of the artists she has collaborated with, not to mention the fact that she’s behind some of Drake’s most energizing videos. Growing up in Pickering, Ontario, Evans was the third of four children. She taught herself to use simple editing software and would make personalized montages about each member of her family. “At seven, eight years old, I was editing videos,” she says, recalling how she’d sneak into the living room at night to watch 106 & Park, BET’s hip-hop and R&B music video countdown, with her older siblings. “I was probably watching work that I wasn’t supposed to be watching at that age, but it was fascinating.”
By her own description, Evans was also an annoyingly precocious kid. “I was the child who put on shows for my family in the living room and would force my younger brother to be a part of them,” she says. Together, they’d lip-synch, perform magic tricks, and act out “horribly written” plays. “I would even make fake tickets to get into the living room.” Her older brother, Jordan Evans, is now a producer and manager whose roster of collaborators includes Jay-Z, Eminem, Lil Wayne, and Daniel Caesar. “My brother is a huge influence on me in so many ways,” she states. “He’s truly paved the way for me by following his dreams from a young age and showing me that I can too.”
At 17, Evans took her dreams to the big city (Toronto), enrolling in Ryerson University’s Creative Industries program. But she was unsatisfied with the pace at which she was getting hands-on experience. “I wanted to learn more, learn faster, and the way that I personally learn best is by being thrown into the thing. I wanted to get my hands dirty,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to get into music videos, to be able to practise the craft of storytelling in a short time frame—and I mean quite literally directing two-to-three-minute videos.”
Evans dropped out of university and cold-called industry veteran Director X, whose number she scored through a mutual friend, producer Boi-1da. “I remember having the phone number in my hand and feeling like it’s either stay in the place that I am right now or take a risk, take a leap,” she says. She took that leap and, as one does in this era, hit him up via text. “Of course, Boi-1da must’ve said something because I was able to go in the very next day to Director X’s production office.” She showed him a no-budget music video she’d done (“I provided the artist with my clothing, and ran around for four nights in Toronto”) and was hired on the spot as an intern with his production company, Creative Soul. In between the requisite coffee runs, Evans was knee-deep in storytelling and editing. And through it all, she kept on creating her own projects. “I still had this constant itch to be doing more, to be learning more,” she says. “You have to do some crappy videos before you do one good video.”
After a year, Evans signed on as a director with X’s new company, Popp Rok. Pretty quickly, she was given an opportunity to gain serious cred when she was asked to direct Drake’s video for “God’s Plan”, the success of which led her to direct videos for more songs off Drake’s double album Scorpion.
“The process is different every single time, and that’s what’s so exciting about music videos,” Evans says. “I like to look at it like a blank canvas, a clean slate.” A case in point is the fiercely female video for “Nice for What”, which showcases a star-studded cast of women in their own celebratory vignettes, including Tiffany Haddish, Tracee Ellis Ross, Emma Roberts, and Misty Copeland. “I wanted to create a world that every single woman could thrive within. It was a conversation about what makes you feel the most empowered. Whether that’s dancing in the desert, or go-karting in London, or jumping into a pool with your friends, what makes you feel the most empowered, and you, and unapologetic,” Evans says. (For the record, if she were to appear in the video, she’d opt to stand on top of a building with Black Panther actor Letitia Wright, “feeling on top of the world.”)
“Growing up and learning how to communicate stories through the music video art form, I felt discomfort with the way that women were represented,” she says. “It’s always at the forefront of my mind with whatever story I get to be a part of telling—to represent women with authenticity.”
The female gaze is certainly alive and well in the video Evans directed for SZA’s song “Garden (Say It Like Dat)”. The video, which co-stars Donald Glover, is a misty retelling of the Adam and Eve story, minus the biblical moralizing. “There’s something to be said about the female gaze that’s not only inherent to me being a woman, but something that’s incredibly important to me.”
“I feel really blessed to be working in a time where the industry wants to hear female voices, black female voices, different kinds of voices.”—Karena Evans
Karena Evans cites the influence of Melina Matsoukas, the renowned director behind countless Beyoncé and Rihanna videos, on her career. “I think that representation has the power to change lives, and it quite literally changed my life because the first female director that I saw and researched was Melina,” she explains. “Through exposure to her, I realized that I had a voice and people wanted to hear that voice.”
Evans’ skills as a director have also taken her outside the realm of music: she directed the pilot of P-Valley, a TV drama centred on a group of strippers in the heart of the Mississippi delta, which will debut on Starz in February. “On the first read of the script, I was overcome by this explosive sense of liberty,” she says. The show, written by Katori Hall, is an adaptation of Hall’s play Pussy Valley. It aims to put a fresh spin on the way strippers are represented in pop culture.
It would be an understatement to say that work is coming fast and furious for Evans, who, on top of all this, is juggling a burgeoning acting career. She’s been burning up the indie scene in films such as Firecrackers, a gripping coming-of-age story about two young women desperate to leave their small Ontario town; it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. In the Jasmin Mozaffari–directed Canadian production, Evans stars as Chantal, one half of a rowdy, restless best-friend duo (alongside Michaela Kurimsky) who are being lauded as a modern Thelma and Louise.
“It was another one of those moments where I didn’t take in really what was happening, but it’s so awesome to have been a part of that female-forward story, made by a bunch of badass women,” she says. When asked if she’d ever combine her two passions, Evans states, “Hats off to the directors who can act in their own film. I think that’s a skill set I’ll definitely need to practise.”
In 2018, she became the first woman to receive the Prism Prize’s prestigious Lipsett Award, given to innovative Canadian video artists. “I feel really blessed to be working in a time where the industry wants to hear female voices, black female voices, different kinds of voices,” she says. To that end, her work is getting bolder, as in her 2016 tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement—a four-minute video featuring members of Toronto’s black community. “It was at a time, which it feels like we’re still living in, where there was so much hate going on in the world, and I felt personally a fear of speaking out,” she says. “[But] we have a responsibility as artists to make the world a better place.”
Styling by Jess Mori. Hair and makeup by Camilla Leary using Ouai for hair; Charlotte Tilbury, Dior, and Fenty Beauty for makeup.
Never miss a story. Sign up for NUVO’s weekly newsletter here.