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Designer, artist and NC A&T student Arial Robinson on beating imposter syndrome

 Nike Campaign Photo shot by Cam Kirk
by Cam Kirk
Nike Campaign Photo shot by Cam Kirk

As one of the youngest Black women to design a shoe for Nike’s Yardrunners campaign, Arial Robinson is the definition of a jack of all trades.

The 21-year-old NC A&T student has yet to graduate but has fulfilled one of her wildest dreams. Born and raised in Charlotte, N.C., Robinson was destined for greatness but she did not know in what medium just yet.

She started her career in the arts as a classically trained singer and dancer. But her soulful style of song was not yet appreciated, she says.

"My own sound, I would say that my sound is extremely soulful … lots of blues. And that was kind of like a problem growing up. Like, for when my teachers needed something a little bit more drawn back. I was just unable to do that.”

So she switched lanes and went on to intern at Beats By Dre, proving that music was just one of the many mediums she would master. From there she put out a discography accompanied by photoshoots that she shot herself. This photoshoot rekindled her passion for photography. She began taking photos of the everyday things she experienced in life. This lead her to author a photo series turned book entitled “The Modern Day Black Alphabet.”

In her spare time, she began curating photoshoots to post on Instagram. In 2020, she created a fake Nike campaign using the shoes in her home. She eventually turned that into apparel that included blankets. Two years later, her life would change based on the success of that photoshoot. In 2021, two HBCU alums at Nike saw her campaign and this ignited her relationship with the brand.

Hinton spoke with Caitlin Leggett for an episode of Changing Channels. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

You use a multitude of different mediums. But if you think back, do you remember what your first real medium was?

Yeah, it was definitely music. So growing up, I always wanted to be a singer. I just knew that like, that was going to be the thing for me. And I still write music a lot. I just don't put it out like I need to. … But singing music was definitely my first medium. And then as I grew older, and [was] going through elementary school, going into middle school, I started doing like acting and dancing. So lots of classically trained arts… But yeah, my first mediums were more on the performance, like classical performance, side.

You're one of the youngest and one of four Black women to design a Nike Dunk for Nike HBCU campaign. So talk to me a little bit about where that all started.

It really all started during the pandemic. So it's been two years in the works … but just me showing up and being consistent. So like at the beginning of the pandemic, and in March of 2020, I was creating a lot of Nike-inspired content, I would call them “fake campaigns,” solely at home, with no budget, like just me, my camera, and shoes I have around the house. So that got a lot of attention from different people. ...

And so just coincidentally enough, there were two HBCU alums who was kicking off the Nike Yardrunners campaign in 2020. I didn't know them at the time. And so I seen their campaign, I'm like, "Wow, this is amazing to be able to see like all these entrepreneurs who are doing good things who come from HBCUs. And they are existing in the real world making real change." And so they sent me a pair of shoes just on their seeding lists. And so I took my own photoshoot with them. And that kind of really got me on the radar. And so then for 2021 Nike Yardrunners, 2.0, they brought me in as the assistant creative rirector. Now it's my first time working on a set … and so we got that all done. And then there was Nike Yardrunners 3.0, which is 2022, they reach back and said, "Hey, we're gonna do it again. But this time, would you like to design a shoe?” And so it was really just a relationship between the two guys who started the campaign … and you know, showing up for the job, being a good person, doing good work.

What are some of the bigger campaigns and internships that you have worked on, worked with, and done?

So I'll say my first really big internship was with Beats by Dre. And that was the summer of 2021. It was virtual. And I

lived in New York while I worked at this like company, and it was great. So I'll say that was a big step, working on your Nike Yardrunners 2.0. … And then of course, like designing the shoe, I did a campaign with Instagram at the beginning of the year in February. So [the] first time going to LA and like being in front of the camera and being in this beautiful mid-century home. ... I also interned at Spotify this summer. So that was also something that was really large because they are the number one streaming service on the planet.

So when you're in these spaces, do you ever feel yourself? Do you ever feel the need to like ground yourself? Or do you remind yourself that you belong there and that you did the work to get there? 

Absolutely, all the time. It's definitely a constant, like me reminding myself that I'm here for a reason. And that just because I may be younger than other people doesn't negate that I have a perspective that they need. They need the Gen Z perspective if they want to sell to Gen Z. I feel like everybody has impostor syndrome, I desperately do for so many times where I'm not giving myself enough credit. And I'm like, "Okay, we cannot do that. Because what we've done does exist and it's only going to help us to keep going." So yeah, definitely like waking up, looking in the mirror really like physically taking in, where I'm at who I am, what I've done, definitely helps me to be grounded. When I go into a meeting, or I'm talking to someone, and they may be a little bit hesitant, and they don't know who I am. I can speak confidently and so like I don't feel timid or shy when I have to explain an HBCU story or a Black story or a Southern story because maybe they've never experienced this. I feel confident in that because it's who I am. It's the story. It's my own experience. Period.

 Arial + Camera shot by Arial Robinson
by Arial Robinson
Arial + Camera shot by Arial Robinson

The multidisciplinary artist is enjoying the rest of her time as a college student, as she prepares to graduate from NC A&T in the spring of 2022. As the future approaches quickly, she has a few reminders for her younger self.

"I don't have to stress myself out about how I'm going to get to a certain place. If I just do what I can right in the moment and enjoy it, and set goals that are tangible for me, everything else will fall in place. It's like, I don't have a million followers. And I don't have a million dollars. But I still have all of these amazing things to show for amazing connections. ... I'm the first one in my family to go to college; even those things are like really big. I'm just telling myself to stay calm, really enjoy where I'm at and what I'm doing. And just keep making good memories, because those memories are the ones that are going to really, you know, help curate a full experience."

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Caitlin Leggett