Zachary Webster is determined to bring innovation to Chicago through the arts.
The 17-year-old high school senior at Gary Comer College Prep is a member of Free Spirit Media, an organization providing teens and young adults in communities on the city’s West and South Sides with a foundation in media literacy through hands-on media production experience. The program offers in-school art education, after school programs, summer digital media courses and advanced creative workforce development programs.
Webster credits his motivation to create to a solid friend group and the network of other teens at Free Spirit Media.
“I put myself in a circle of people that have really great work ethic,” Webster explains. “It pushes me forward to create amazing projects. My friend group is business-oriented as well as artistic, so we all create different types of art.”
The art Webster is currently producing is music-driven, but he also enjoys other forms of storytelling like journalism, videography, documentaries and building websites.
“What really interests me most is music,” Webster says. “I am naturally into writing so this directly relates to my music. It catches my interest because of how fast paced music can be and how fast paced you can push out content.”
“I decided I was going to take my phone and headphones and make an EP [extended playlist],” Webster explains. “I studied how to release content on Apple Music, and in three days I successfully put out an EP. Now some of those songs have over 10,000 plays. It’s crazy how you can reach people all the way in Australia or China. It made me realize that anything is possible if you have the right mindset and are willing to work toward that goal seriously.”
Developing a strong sense of self has been an ongoing journey for Webster — one that was pushed forward by one of his biggest inspirations, Chicago-born rapper Juice Wlrd who died at 21 last year after suffering cardiac arrest.
The late rapper provided Webster with reassurance.
“We came from the same community and shared a lot of the same struggles,” Webster says. “To see someone like him have success and make such an impact on music and art in general is inspiring. He impacted so many lives and brought out the confidence in me to do the same.”
As a shy child growing up in south suburban Calumet Park, Webster was hesitant to speak up, did not want to be on camera and was nervous to receive lots of attention. Now, with his newfound confidence, he is spearheading storytelling concepts with Free Spirit Media and dedicating his craft to enhancing the arts in Chicago.
“I really want to change the sound of music in Chicago,” Webster says. “I don’t want to add on to the same sound that has been going around. I want music that pushes feelings out of you and creates a whole new identification for Chicago. I want to be that mark on the world and make an impact.”
Working toward this goal has been challenging due to COVID-19, but Webster is doing his best to stay positive and find ways to use the arts as a form of healing during the pandemic.
“Art is a therapeutic thing,” Webster says. “If you have something to push out that others don’t know about, you can do it in an artistic way to gain awareness to that issue that people may have not known about before.”
Growing up, it was Webster’s sister’s love of drawing that sparked his own interest to learn more about art.
“I was always around art,” Webster explains. “I would literally stay up all night just studying music videos and listening to music to see what the lyrics were saying and how they made me feel. That’s why I love jazz so much. Sometimes you don’t even need words, it’s about the feeling.”
Webster is also utilizing social media as a way to create meaningful music during coronavirus and keep in touch with others in the music world.
These relationships motivate Webster, as does his mother’s ongoing support. She encourages his love of music and helps him work toward his ultimate goal of going to college to pursue a media career.
“I want to graduate from college and start a record label,” Webster says. “I am hoping I will be able to affect as many lives as I can with music. I want to be more of a leader in my community. That’s why it’s so important to tell young people, as cliche as it might sound, that you can do anything. I used to not have the confidence in myself but once you put yourself to the test and put aside the negativity, you start to realize you can do whatever you want as long as you take it and yourself seriously.”
Francesca Gattuso is a writer for the Sun-Times marketing department.