The Art of Dantrel Van Robinson

He’d want me to tell you to stay encouraged. He’d want me to tell you that God’s got you. And that the victory is already won. So I will. He’d also say something witty and, with his southern twang that you’d only hear if he was comfortable he’d tell you that there’s no need to worry about anything. He’d tell you to pray and to put God and family first. He’d tell you to make music part of your ministry and somehow find a way to let you know that he had a podcast celebrating the best of… hot sauce, something way out of the box yet right on brand for a man that never had an ordinary thought. A man that was good at everything and would be defeated by almost nothing. That was my friend and brother Dantrel Van Robinson, who passed away earlier this October, his birthday month. He was able to accomplish so much in his 45 years. And still, he’s gone way too soon. I miss him.

We met because of words, as bloggers way back in 2005. We were part of a community of Black writers that were way ahead of their time, sharing stories and writing when they should’ve been working, every weekday without fail. Part of the connection was leaving comments on each others’ pages, and the journey took us from Blogger to Blogsome all the way over to Vox. We became tight when we saw we had a lot in common, with the common denominator being our similar taste in music. This was not long after what was introduced as neo soul became the norm, with national treasures Jill Scott and Erykah Badu leading the way (Jill. Yes Lawd!). In fact, it was most likely a post I wrote about Jill on my old blog, detailing how instrumental she was in my dealing with the anniversary of my father’s passing, that drew us closer.

We stayed ahead of the times, uniting our words and those of our partner-in-crime Yolanda Barnes to create the internet’s first online soap opera, Yanni’s Block. Yolie was Yanni, I was Mason, and Trel was Eric, and each week we’d have our own day to write what was going on in the fictional Blogsome Bay. It continued for multiple seasons, and it was must-read material. For real.

All of that happened over the internet, but you couldn’t tell me we weren’t brothers. Two years passed before we would meet in person, and when we did, it was at his wedding in Houston. Me and our friend Joann showed up for our guy, sight unseen, as he tied the knot.

And of course we did. It was the natural progression of a friendship that grew over the years. We’d talk offline about our childhoods, and who we were dating, and the comedy and drama that ensued from it all. We both loved Martin. He was a big fan of, and often got mistaken for, Malcolm (Jamal Warner). I was from the New Edition generation. He was the world’s number one Boyz II Men fan (no seriously… he LOVED them–Shawn Stockman the most–and it was only last month that he finally was able to purchase all three of their FUNCO figures. He was so happy about that). A show called Community came along, which starred my friend Yvette Nicole Brown, and every Friday we’d chat about what happened the night before. Through that, and social media, he became close with Yvette. Their friendship was special: it started with him telling her how much he admired her work, and through the years they developed a special bond, both spiritual and personal, older sister to younger brother, with him giving her encouragement when needed, and her giving him sound advice about the women he dated and the obstacles he faced. I loved seeing my two favorite humans connected and both living in their purpose.

We haven’t even begun to talk about his gifts. Like the famous Jacksons, he was born in Gary, Indiana, and honestly he had just as much talent. Seriously, the man could do everything well. He was an author, an artist, a musician, an illustrator, a master marketer, and podcast host. He hosted open mics and was also one of the best amateur photographers you’d ever want to meet. He wrote poetry before it became mainstream. He played guitar. And keyboards (he was particularly fond of the Fender Rhodes keyboard, so much so that he named one of his puppies Fender). He conceptualized and created his own line of bow ties (Fave Bowties). He made collectable art. He taught himself to be a cartoonist, and because of that Fender, who had recently passed away, lived on in cartoon form as A Pug Named Fender. One of his best friends, Todd, was featured in his very own comic strip called Zombie Todd. He loved the online series That Guy, and reached out to the creator to see if there was a way they could collaborate. Of course there was, and the following season, it was his artwork that was shown during the opening credits.

He loved music, and wrote about it and spoke about it with such a dexterity and flow, he was approached directly by the social media director of The GRAMMYs (!!!), Beverly Jackson, to lend his talents to the yearly event by giving audiences a day-by-day play-by-play of everything RAP leading up to Music’s Biggest Night. It was through him that I met Beverly, way back in 2010 when the community blogging team had to make their own way to Los Angeles to participate in the week’s festivities. I’ll never forget that first year, when a few of us stayed at a Comfort Inn for three nights, the highlight of the stay being the lobby’s waffle maker. We were just happy to be there, me tagging along as he did his thing. The next year Beverly asked me to officially join the crew to cover GOSPEL, and from then on, during our yearly visits to the west coast, we ran LA. The accommodations got better, with the Hilton Checkers hotel in downtown LA and Delta Airlines replacing the Comfort Inn and raggedy rental car from Year One. We started recording our adventures, with food reviews of local dives progressing into a video series we called Will & Fave Grammy Week. It was epic.

How passionate was he about music? I’m glad you asked. Each year he’d collaborate with fellow music lovers to convene B.A.R.T. (which stood for Best Albums Round Table), with the group doling out accolades for the best of the year in music. It was just another platform he created to celebrate the artists and the writers that loved the art form. When we were both writing for the online music site SoulBounce, he volunteered to produce what would become one of the greatest tributes to a living artist, Yonkers’ own Mary J. Blige. It started as a concept called Men Love Mary, with male artists covering the soundtrack of a generation, MJB’s opus My Life, and soon turned into a masterpiece in Trel’s capable hands. He deftly mixed the tracks for each artist–with interludes by the legendary producer of My Life, Chucky Thompson, and produced a whole album that Chucky loved and surely would’ve made Mary proud (we thiiiiiiink she’s heard it but that’s never been confirmed).

Those experiences inspired us to start our own podcast called The Next Episode, where we showed love to our favorites from film, television and, of course, music. We talked to people we knew (Eric Roberson, Matthew A. Cherry, Russell Taylor, Deborah Bond) and those we got to know (Yolonda Ross, Dana Gourrier) and those whose work we admired from afar (James Pickens, Jr., Anthony Mackie). We did it remotely, with him in Houston and me, fresh to Los Angeles.

We made sizzle reels for the pod, and chronicled our detox journeys, and made trailers for the current year’s GRAMMYs. We had inside jokes, like “Beverly Hills pasta salad”, “Hi, Lalah!”, and “we’re just out here tryna function”. We got to hang with the indie musicians we loved, like The Foreign Exchange and Eric Roberson (in fact his artwork was featured on Eric’s album Mister Nice Guy, and Trel was the official artist for the annual Roberson family holiday cards!). We met our heroes while in LA: I’ll never forget how excited he was when he literally ran into Motown founder Berry Gordy at a GRAMMY event. He was on that high for a few years.

We supported each other in whatever we were doing. He told me about a Twitter group that celebrated Black nerds called BlerdDating, and soon after him mentioning it we were both doing what we loved most: taking it all the way back to where we started as bloggers, sharing stories with the Twittersphere about our awkward dating misadventures. Trel loved telling stories, putting on a huge smile while talking about the time he met a trailer park vampire nurse, or revealing that he got the name Fave, which is short for Favorite Nightmare, from a Mos Def lyric.

His award-winning podcast The Friday Favecast, where he would place a spotlight on independent artists while also delivering messages of encouragement to his vast audience, felt like his life’s calling. And even with that being as successful as it was, he made room for me, inviting me to do The Friday 5ives, which were really just five things that were on my mind that particular week. I never forgot that. There’s not a project that I’ve done in recent years that doesn’t evoke his presence. His artwork on the Dawson Eats America podcast and my first book, An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving a Global Pandemic, garner as much attention as the projects themselves. One of my best friends needed a music supervisor for her award-winning podcast. One of my colleagues needed a professional flyer done. Neither time did I blink before referring them to Trel. And he delivered.

We always had each other’s back. Just like he was there for me way back in 2005 when I was dealing with the aftermath of my father’s passing, I was there for him when his father passed away last year just before COVID went crazy. Even if it had been in full effect mode like an old Al B. album title, I still would’ve made my way to Birmingham to stand with him. To drive with him to the cemetery. To be there to pick him up when he needed it. His father was everything to him: his confidant, his sensei, his construction partner, his inspiration for wanting to become a pastor, his stabilizing force, his source of unconditional love. I got to spend the day with his dad when I stopped through on my drive cross country, and spending just one day with him let me know how special he was. An amazing man, who raised an amazing son. It’s safe to say his death changed Trel. Gave him even more to live up to.

We talked about him often, and he told me stories that made me laugh, and made me think. I didn’t meet his mom until that trip cross country, but she immediately became one of my favorite people. And she loved her son with every fiber in her body. Meeting both of his parents made me understand him even more. Made me want to show up for Trel like he did for me, driving to New Orleans to help me ring in my 50th, no questions asked. However, it’s those times I wasn’t able to show up that still eat at me. Circumstances and COVID wouldn’t allow me to attend his wedding to his lovely bride Taryn, and the baptism of their adorable daughter Lena. I’m upset I missed both of those milestone events and have grudgingly accepted that it happened for a reason. But, still. Usually, when things didn’t go as smoothly for one of us, we were able to laugh about it and still create. He wrote a whole song about the time I traveled to see a girl I liked that didn’t feel the same way, and entitled it “She Don’t Like Me.” It was an ode to me being foolish. And also a bop.

The latest thing we’d collaborated on was without a doubt his most original idea ever, the Lost in the Sauce podcast, where he highlighted the best (and not so best) hot sauces in existence, each episode lasting less than ten minutes. This was while also growing his own peppers and CREATING HIS OWN HOT SAUCE (Fave Hot Sauce)! The man was unstoppable. I thought with this project I’d be cheering from the sidelines, but nah. He wouldn’t allow that. He asked if I’d join him on the longer episodes, where we would review hot sauces in real time. Of course I said yes, and through the power of Zoom, we made it happen. While we were in NOLA, we recorded a live episode of LITS. We had so much fun with that segment. There’s no way I would’ve ever thought it would be the last one he would record. And now I’m sad all over again.

I’m glad I got to spend that time with him, and was able to tell him how much I loved and appreciated him for being my ace. Letting him know how much he was loved by the world. How much he meant to everyone around him. How much of a humble, creative, big-hearted force he was. I’d give almost anything to hear one more “Pop! Pop!” or one more Boyz II Men run. One more sermon or MOVE! video, or one more trip to LA. One more ode to our “mayne” man Terrence Howard, or a trip to Comfort LA for those wings, or a karaoke tribute to Childish Gambino. One more time to watch him sketch in his latest moleskine notebook or acknowledge his love of Spider-Man or his penchant for wearing suits and bow ties when we were just going out for pizza. To say he was a renaissance man would be doing him a disservice.

I’ll miss my friend. My brother. He leaves behind his wife, his children, his mom, his best friend JQ, his collaborator/music partner Todd and his confidants Tye and Andre, and the many, many people that were affected by his talents. That were blessed by his presence. And me. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t laugh about something we talked about, or have an idea about something we were thinking about creating, and then I start to go to my phone to text him, and have to stop myself. Right now, not even two weeks since his passing, the grief comes in waves. And if I’m being honest I’m not sure I’ll ever be OK. The most comforting things to come out of this tragedy are the condolences from folks far and wide, and the recognition of our brotherly bond. For that I am proud and remain encouraged. And although God’s got this, I’m gonna spend the rest of my days making sure I got Trel, continuing to create and hopefully make him proud.

His last message to the world was to make sure we all live on purpose. In honor of a man that was able to do everything, that’s definitely something I can do.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Dantrel Van Robinson

  1. I laughed and cried through this. You managed to capture the essence, the mission, the PURPOSE of Trel’s life. They’ll be reading his deeds for days up there. Thank you for this. I needed it today and will keep it close for days to come. You two are my brothers for life. 💜

    Like

  2. Will!!! This is outstanding! I always admired the friendship you two shared and I was so shocked to learn you two had known each other prior to the blogging days. You two embodied the saying “peas in a pod”.

    It’s so encouraging to read all the wonderful things Fave (Dantrel) did. I knew he a was an accomplished man but this article really laid it out. Please continue sharing his story for his children. It deserves to be told.🕊

    All love to you as you continue to go on an heal.

    Xoxo
    Vox friend
    Shantel🤍

    Like

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