By Jamel Smith
January 24, 2022
Arial Robinson, aka Robin Vanguard, seems to be destined for great things. Two days following our interview, the author-turned-musical artist amassed over 1,500 retweets and 9,000 likes (and counting) on Twitter for her internship cover letter to Spotify. It wasn’t like any other cover letter; it was a 100-song playlist titled “100 Reasons Why Arial Should Intern at Spotify this Summer.” The timing of her virality feels like kismet.
— Arial is Robin Vanguard. (@honestari) January 15, 2022
Robinson is the second of four children, and claims to be “the most outgoing of all her siblings.” Born and raised in Charlotte, she dreamed of following in the footsteps of the greats: Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, and Beyoncé. These days, she’s forging her own path as a two-time published author, a photographer, a full-time college student at North Carolina A&T, and a recording artist. On January 4, Robinson released her first musical project, it’s getting mad weird in here, a three-song EP.
Like many Black artists, Robinson got her start in the local Black church. She and her family spent Sundays at her grandmother’s church where she joined the choir. Years removed from her “church choir” roots, she is still able to reminisce on the early days of discovering her voice through the “soulful” voices around her. “I remember being in the choir and hearing these deep, soulful voices; and just feeling that feeling you get when you’re singing. It just moved through me,” she said. Those early moments and feelings of singing in her church choir still render indescribable for Robinson, but it was enough to jumpstart her interest in becoming an artist.
Music has always been Robinson’s passion, but she’s also pursued many other interests. In addition to being in the church choir, she was a dancer, a photographer, and a recording artist. In fact, if you were familiar with Robinson before this interview, you probably know her as an author. Robinson obtained her first wave of success and exposure as the author of two books, The Modern Day Black Alphabet and Black Hair Care in Color.
During the pandemic, after having grown bored with making TikTok videos, she decided to spend her time nurturing a new talent: photography. “I always had so much photography equipment and stuff that I’ll just get from friends or little backdrops that I’ve got here and there. And I just started creating a lot of content,” Robinson said.
In true DIY spirit, she began workshopping her talent through creating a fake ten-part Nike ad series. Once she conquered that expression, she moved on to archival work, where she found the key to her next artistic venture. “On my Twitter archives, I saw that I archived a post about the original Black ABCs in 1970, created by the Society of Visual Education in Chicago,” she said. “And so I remembered seeing that and was like, ‘Wow, this concept is super cool. I want to do this myself.’”
And so she did. Robinson started out by archiving each letter on Instagram. And that’s where “supply and demand” took over. “About halfway through, the alphabet started to pick up some traction, and people were like, ‘If you made it into a book, I would buy it.’” Vanguard officially became a published author in 2020 with The Modern Day Black Alphabet.
The spirit of DIY has been apparent in her young career. Upon officially presenting herself as a recording artist, Robinson started posting personalized covers of popular songs on SoundCloud, covers she would arrange and record herself– a challenge she enjoyed. “It gave me more of an appreciation of what it takes to create because it’s like a challenge,” Robinson said. “If you have to sit down at a table, and you only have a certain amount of materials, you have to figure out how you are going to bring your vision to life.”
Like the greats she once looked up to, she finds appreciation in her personalization of “the details.” That appreciation led her to her first commercial release, it’s getting mad weird in here. The three-song EP follows Vanguard’s journey post-turning 21 and explores newfound adulthood, love, and self-worth.
“I turned 21 in September, and there was something about turning 21 and realizing I’m never going to be a child again,” she said. “There were all of these different things I didn’t even know existed coming at me. And then physically, my body is changing, because I’m becoming a woman…And I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s just getting mad weird.’”
Vanguard dips back into her origins in the church choir to assist the development of her sound. For the EP, she was inspired by “nostalgia R&B and church choirs,” crediting Mary J. Blige, Kanye West and Sunday Service Choir as heavy sonic influences. Those influences come to a glorious head on the first track (“Stranger Things”), where the listener is met with intersecting harmonies and soaring vocal stylings that harken back to what she first heard in her grandmother’s church, and what many of us know to be “classic R&B.”
Robinson is pursuing a multi-hyphenate life as Robin Vanguard, and she is asking her fans to embrace all of it. She refers to the double life of Donald Glover and his creative alias, Childish Gambino. “I look up to Donald Glover and Childish Gambino a lot. Seeing him be able to exist in both of those personas, and still be that one person is what I’m going for. Robin Vanguard is gonna exist just as much as Arial Robinson is going to exist.”
High off of her latest release, she plans to drop more art across the board this year, all as a way to paint a clearer picture of who she is as an artist, author, photographer, and a woman. “I want to tell stories that are real to me,” she said. “And that reflects what’s going on in my life, because it’s important to document, and not just document with photos and not just document with words, but also with music. And so this is just another way of me documenting what’s going on in my life. There’s more to come for sure.”