Karena Evans Is Just Getting Started

The mastermind behind a trio of Drake's hit music videos, Karena Evans is already a creative force at 23. She's only warming up.

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Directing one viral Drake video is — well, fine — it's pretty freaking cool. But just for the sake of argument, let's say Karena Evans’ break-out with "God's Plan" back in January was a case of beginner's luck. Because a fluke might seem like a logical way to explain the amazing success of a 22-year-old unknown. And then she did it again ("Nice For What") and again ("I'm Upset").
When she wasn't topping the charts and earning mad props (MMVA and BET awards for Best Director and the first woman ever to earn the Canadian Prism Prize's Lipsett Award), the Toronto native was pursuing her other passion, acting, starring in the feature film Firecrackers, which debuted at TIFF and recently made the list of the fest's top 10 Canadian offerings. What else to expect from a woman whose every inclination turns to gold… and then certified platinum? Evans’ combo of success and swagger is what earned her the top spot on Refinery 29’s list of 29 Powerhouses.
Here, the just turned 23-year-old (happy birthday, Karena!) explains the secret ingredient to her chill sets, her mission to spotlight alternative voices, and why (no big surprise here), she’s got big plans for 2019.
You are a 23-year-old woman who has directed some of the most established men in the music industry. What’s the secret to your swagger?
I think it comes from trusting your gut and working hard to follow it. In terms of projecting authority in a very male-dominated industry, I’m still learning the tricks of the trade — what I need to work on and owning my swagger. Some days I feel super confident in myself and my work, and other days I question those things. On those days, I have learned to just accept being human, and put one foot in front of the other. With the work, the trick is to remove yourself and your own ego and make it about the story I’m telling. That can give me confidence to take that next step.
How would you describe your directorial vibe?
I’m super collaborative. It’s a privilege to wake up and tell a story, and so I try to think about working towards creating a positive space for everyone on the project — the artist, but also the crew. There are three big things, which are respecting everybody, right down to the PA, communicating with everybody, and then I sage the set, so I literally cleanse the space. It’s about getting rid of negative energy. I sage everything, including my home.

When I’m working with an artist, my own ego is not part of it. Whatever they need me to be in that moment to make them feel comfortable, that’s what I’m going to be.

Karena Evans
2018 has been a huge year for you. What do you know today that you didn’t know a year ago?
I think in this industry, there is a lot of ego, but when I’m working with an artist, my own ego is not part of it. Whatever they need me to be in that moment to make them feel comfortable, that’s what I’m going to be. Every artist is really different, so I think about understanding their energy, their brand, their personality. One thing doesn’t work with everybody. It’s sort of like creating these custom suits.
You have worked closely with fellow Canadians Drake and Director X. Is there a Canadian quality that you all share?
I think we’re really hungry. There’s this fire in all of us that comes from being from here and being on the outskirts of where it’s quote/unquote “happening.” There’s a hunger to get there, to defy this Canadian idea of playing it safe.
The video for Drake’s “Nice For What” starred a squad of global celebrity powerhouses like Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae, and Olivia Wilde; the video for “I’m Upset” starred Drake’s former Degrassi cast mates. Which group was harder to control?
Well the Degrassi group, because on top of shooting the video, they were having a real reunion, so it was balancing letting them have that reunion with getting the job done. They were definitely having a party. I have a really great team and we just kept it going and tried to keep it under control.
Were you a Degrassi fan growing up?
Yes, totally. And then preparing for “I’m Upset,” I binge-watched Drake’s era.
Favourite character? No pressure.
I think I have to say Drake. Jimmy.
When did you first know you wanted to direct music videos?
Looking back I can see the signs from when I was younger. I was the child who put on plays for my family in the living room. There was this pre-Apple program and I would edit these videos for birthdays. Later I went to university to study film. I appreciate education and I’m so here for it, but I wasn’t happy with the pace. I wanted to learn faster, which is how I ended up reaching out to Director X, who is a famous director. I texted him and said, “You don’t know who I am and you probably don’t care to know who I am, but I want to work for you and learn and show you what I can do.” He told me to come to his office the very next day.
So the moral of the story is: Forget school, and find a celebrity’s cell phone number?
Ha — no. I think it’s really practice, do the work. You need to be putting in a thousand hours every single — well, not a day, but it’s taking in as much information you can and taking every opportunity to learn. When I first met with X, we had a great conversation, but at a certain point he wanted to see what I had done. I showed him this video I had made called the “$0 music video” — that’s literally what it cost to make — but I think you could see the spark of something.

Any time I get the opportunity, it’s about telling an authentic, inclusive, representative story.

Karena Evans
You are obviously a super creative person, but how do you tell the difference between a really crazy good idea and a crazy bad one?
If you know the answer to that question, please tell me. I think that innocence is part of being an artist, to keep exploring ideas and then having a team around you who can be honest and say, let’s keep building or not.
Speaking of crazy ideas, you became the hottest thing in your industry this year and then you decide to try acting. How come?
Acting has always been a goal for me. It’s like I have these two hearts and they both beat as fast as the other. The challenging thing is not so much doing both as it is switching from one mode to the other. Normally I have trouble trusting, but with Firecrackers it was the easiest process to trust Jasmin Mozaffari, who’s the director, and the cinematographer, and the producers and everyone involved. It was the best experience and I think that’s because it was a crew full of women who created that safe space.
Firecrackers just ranked in the top 10 Canadian films at TIFF 2018. Congrats! What was it like to be part of the festival?
Well it was my first TIFF, but I didn’t really get the full experience. I was working on a different job in Atlanta, so I flew in for the day.
So that’s how you get to be Karena Evans.
It was still so amazing to have my family and my friends in my hometown celebrating a Canadian film. I was really proud to be Canadian.
Anything you plan to conquer next year?
Film and TV. I just signed on to direct the premiere episode of an untitled Starz series about a community of strippers in Mississippi. That’s really exciting for me because I come from music videos where there is a long history of a lack of representation of women or an inaccurate representation of women or a complete misrepresentation of women. With strippers in particular, it’s always objectifying and exploitive and inauthentic.
You’ve talked in the past about the responsibility you feel to tell stories that are inclusive and representative. Presumably this is a good example of that.
Yes. Any time I get the opportunity, it’s about telling an authentic, inclusive, representative story. I’m sort of dedicated to telling the stories of the quote/unquote “other.” With this new Starz series you finally get an opportunity to understand this community. And although it’s told through the lens of a strip club, it’s really about race and class and gender.
Last question: You have a birthday this week. What’s the plan?
My friends and family are throwing me a surprise party. Which I know about.
How did you find out?
I’m just nosy and very controlling.
I guess it’s hard to plan a surprise party for a director. But at least you’re also an actor, so you can act surprised.
Right, exactly. I’m looking forward to it.

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