Photo Illustration. Source: @willnotwilly
Less than two minutes into the video, William Humphrey is doing his best Whitney Houston impression. Well, his tub of Wet Line Xtreme hair gel is doing its best Whitney Houston impression, it just happens to be in Humphrey’s voice. Humphrey himself is doing his best Brandy impression — the Cinderella to the gel’s Fairy Godmother, as per the 1997 TV-movie version of Cinderella. And it goes a little something like this:
Wet Line Xtreme Gel: I’m yo’ fairy godmother, whatchu want? And hurry up, ’cause I clock out at 12.
Will: I’d like a wash ’n’ go.
Wet Line Xtreme Gel: [singing] Imposssssibllllle!
Wet Line Xtreme Gel: Oh, nothing, just keep going.
Will: Well, a wash ’n’ go, I suppose. One that’s so poppin’ that everyone is staring at me at the ball.
Wet Line Xtreme Gel: Girl, you know you ain’t goin’ to that ball. And most people would wish to be rich and famous, but okay, sis. Fah de la, fa da lee dee…
It’s hard to imagine someone having more fun talking about natural hair care than Will Humphrey. As WillOnAWhim, the ebullient 26-year-old has garnered more than 300,000 YouTube subscribers, millions of likes, and the rare feat of a comment section that’s both lively and generous. (“That wash ’n’ go better be a wash ’n’ stay because ms. rona ain’t playing in these streets,” quipped one commenter on a recent video about conditioning.) His editing and earnestness infuses hair education with ridiculous voice-overs, a quick wit — ”winter took you, read you for filth, dragged you by exactly seven hair follicles” — and an undying, endearing sweetness.
WillOnAWhim has become a beloved creator by leaning into the most joyful aspects of the hair struggle — and in doing so, he has helped carve out a space for a generation of Black men to talk about their hair in an entirely new way.
Despite shooting all his videos in his bedroom, the Angeleno-turned-Phoenix resident has become a pillar of a burgeoning nationwide community: men talking about natural hair. That conversation is nothing new to Black women; when hair discussion found its way to YouTube in the early 2010s, they were the ones to lead the charge. But over time Black men built their own thriving ecosystem on the video-streaming platform. While their success stories are fewer than their naturalista counterparts, they still enjoy some of the perks that prominent creatorship can bring, from ad revenue to sponsorships to consulting gigs.
Numbers are only part of the story, however. The fuller one is that WillOnAWhim has become a consistent, beloved YouTube creator by leaning into the most joyful aspects of the hair struggle — and that, in doing so, he has helped carve out a space for a generation of Black men to talk about their hair in an entirely new way.
There weren’t many Black men talking about their hair on YouTube in 2016, and the few who were there were young. “The guys who were there were high schoolers and college freshmen,” Humphrey says, “and they all wanted the exact same look: the blonde hair and the shaved sides with the curly top. It wasn’t about health, but about getting a particular aesthetic.”
Instead of jumping on the Odell Beckham Jr. content train, Humphrey thought about his classmates and friends at Brown University — especially the women, who were going natural and becoming autodidacts in the process. “They didn’t know what they were doing either,” he says now, laughing. “We were all learning together.”
That summer, Humphrey alternated between personal videos — his very first upload was about struggling with close friends moving away — and hair tutorials. Almost immediately, he realized that the hair content had an audience. That first hair tutorial had precisely zero frills. No quick-cut edits, no visual allusions to Black culture or memes, just Will in what looked like a brand-new apartment, helping Black men with protective styles. Yet, his personality couldn’t help but shine through: Just as he described the weather in that video, his ebullience was “hotter than Keyshia Cole’s breath tryna hit a high note.”
Much like his new home, the Black men’s hair movement on YouTube was still relatively untouched soil then. But out of that confusion, a community began to form. Take that video about Wet Line Xtreme. See, hair gels are hard sells for Black folks, because they’re usually aimed at finer, straighter hair. On us, shit goes on gunky and congeals into a hard, unnatural slick, then flakes up and leaves our hair looking like a Pusha T verse. It’s not that gel can’t work; it’s just a matter of finding one that does its job and still leaves your hair feeling moisturized. So when Natural Hair YouTube became embroiled in debate over Wet Line Xtreme and Eco-Styler, Humphrey waded into the fray to explain the difference between the two — but also to give voice to the exhaustion Black people feel with hair products that aren’t necessarily made for them.
He calls it “hair care as self-care,” something that goes beyond a mere tutorial. Over time, he’s developed an arsenal of tools: snappy comedy bits, hard cuts incorporating found sound effects, reaction videos, voiceover, even costumes. The result tells viewers what to know and do in order to maintain a healthy hair routine — but also, he says, “the tools to explore who they are as black people. Their own community, their own identity.”
The existential question when he started was whether Black men could form community through hair. Not just people making videos, but cultivating a spirit of belonging, of together.
In the early days of natural hair vlogging, this was the gender gap. Men just seemed much more interested in looks rather than the intrinsic satisfaction of self-discovery. “With women,” Humphrey says, “it was more about taking care of your hair, transitioning out of not just permed hair, but an era where eurocentric standards were chaining everybody to a certain look or experience.”
Natural hair vlogging was a Black woman’s game from the very beginning, though “beginning” in this case means about 15 years ago on Tumblr. That’s where users like Patrice “Afrobella” Grell Yursik, Tamara Floyd, and Francheska Medina ushered in a renaissance of Black hair care, questioning existing taxonomies of hair texture and reviewing products specifically for how they worked with Black hair. In the process, they ended up monetizing their passion from sponsorships and management deals, helped to establish a playbook that would spawn a larger influencer culture. By 2018, Nielsen assessed the Black hair industry to be well over $2 billion — and that’s not counting accessories, wigs, or electric clippers. Those women found their niche, cultivated it, and cashed out.
Humphrey watched those women work and thought about the void that existed for men looking to actually care for their scalps. Growing up in South Carolina with long hair in the 1990s, he found himself an object of curiosity, if not derision. Friends and strangers would tell him to “do something with that nappy hair.” His family took it a step further, pressuring Humphrey’s mother to cut his hair every few weeks, until the rhythm of the barbershop treks had been set in stone. “It was a pushback on not wanting me to be feminine,” he says. “Every guy in my family had to be hyper masculine.”
That perceived necessity, of course, remains one of the biggest hindrances to building relationships between Black men, even in the simple act of teaching one another about one another. Many Black male hair vloggers, even now, make it a point to highlight their straightness, either by addressing women directly — telling the girls watching their videos to put a heart in the comments — or shooting videos with their girlfriends just to make their sexuality abundantly clear.
Yet, Black Men’s Hair YouTube has blossomed into a truly robust experience with a breadth of voices. There’s the cool savoir faire of Sheldon “kxdsheldy” Dennis, whose curl tutorials are some of the most trafficked on the platform; Chase “Gunther da Great” Eatmon, whose recent chop has had his fans kinda confused about his new direction. Barbers have established themselves as well, with cats like 360Jeezy creating everything from fly cut designs to product reviews to talk shows where scalp foibles from across the nation are put under the microscope. All of it amounts to a bustling space for education and entertainment — a brand-new way to get into the age-old process of wig talk.
With this digital revolution came the opportunity for Black men to really learn from one another, affecting not just how we experience the world but in how we experience our own bodies. This kind of education is what scholars call “collective learning” — and its study has exploded in the last 10 years.
Where it differs from other facets of creator culture like Twitch game-streaming or “Beauty YouTube” is that collective learning pursues self-worth much more than it does fame. “The tendency is to interpret side hustles only as about economics,” says S. Craig Watkins, a communications professor at the University of Texas-Austin. As founding director of the Institute for Media Innovation, Watkins has studied collective learning and digital cultures for over a decade; his 2019 book Don’t Knock the Hustle examined the economic impact of such online communities. “The economic return on a lot of these activities is often minimal at best,” he says, “and yet that doesn’t deter people from investing significant emotional energy into these enterprises. A primary motivator is this pursuit of dignity and opportunity.”
Everyone south of boomer age has figured out that a day job doesn’t always equal enrichment — and for millennials, their prospects further burned by the 2008 recession, that translates to a trade-off: We’re prepared to get paid a relatively lower wage to do something that teaches us about ourselves, builds us up, and extends that education outward. For Black people whose culture is routinely stolen, attacked, or destroyed, the need for self-understanding and dignity are almost spiritual callings.
But as most YouTube creators will tell you, that kind of existence is difficult to sustain. “One of the things I heard over and over again,” Watkins says of reporting his book, “was, ‘there’s nothing glamorous about it. This is hard. There is a toll that we have to pay.’” A modicum of platform celebrity doesn’t allay the stress of producing content weekly, as Will does; there are some things that sponsorships and a bustling inbox simply cannot solve.
And companies like YouTube have no obligation, and seemingly little interest, in caring for the creators who make it the multibillion dollar company it is. “One of the things that struck me from people who do this work was the need to actively support their mental health,” Watkins says, “due to the stress and anxiety of the side hustle economy.”
Still, Humphrey has seen some encouraging growth in his personal corner of YouTube — something he attributes to a combination of ever-evolving creator culture and YouTube itself giving creators more control over their comments sections (Humphrey demurred when asked about what exactly made these changes more comfortable). “There’s a horizontal community that you can build just by reaching out,” he says. Like, Terrell McDonald and CurlyGuy…I’ve been able to reach out to people who are like-minded and we’ve been able to share our communities with one another.” It doesn’t necessarily make the actual job of creating videos more emotionally sustainable but it’s remarkably improved their relationship with their friends. Regardless, the shit is still really hard.
“YouTube started off being a hobby for everybody,” Humphrey says. “But we have this opportunity to turn a hobby into a profession — and it’s freelance work. It depends on your viewership, how you’re engaging with people, and requires churning out content that could be hit or miss.” Between work and school and all the other things that take up bandwidth in folks’ lives and when you have to be your own writer, producer, editor and tech person, “you end up being a whole team in one. And life gets in the way.”
That original YouTube-as-hobby ethic — just sharing your life with other people — still pulses through Humphrey’s videography, from his recent video addressing the fungus growing on his scalp, to his befuddled reaction to beard weaves. It’s still about how he lives in a world where despite doing your damndest to take care of yourself and stay afloat, you can still get a fucking fungus.
Luckily, for those creating and expanding the natural black hair community, no matter what they experience, there’s someone else out there who’s been through it too — and he’s just a click away.