Artist Spotlight: Zachary Lee, ‘16

Courtesy of

Tatiana Rodriguez, Arts & Trends Editor

Poet and musician Zachary Lee has been quietly taking the art world by storm. You can catch him playing at Carnegie Hall,  writing award-worthy prose for literary publications, or performing slam poems at WY’s Louder Than a Bomb bouts. Having few classes with him over the last 4 years, I’ve always noticed Lee as a hidden gem. Calm and quiet, Zachary prefers sitting in the back of his classes, staying hidden until called on to come out of his shell. The wallflower blossoms. He unfolds, fearlessly unleashing a moving poem, a beautiful song, or a hilarious anecdote. Though he seems reserved, Lee enjoys thought-provoking conversations. I decided to have a chat with him to take a look inside of this artist’s brain.


What are your favorite things to do in your spare time?

I definitely enjoy writing a lot whether that’s writing poems or short stories. I have my own blog called Montag’s Musings where I put up my literary works. Other than that I’m also an avid action figure collector. So I usually go to Target after school and try to get superhero toys or action figures. I also play the saxophone so there’s a musical side as well as a literary side.


Why did you decide to play saxophone?

Originally, when I was really young, I played the violin, That’s when I lived in California and i lived there until I was about 6. I wasn’t that great at it so I kind of took a hiatus from doing music. Later, I wanted to join band again; I thought knowing how to play an instruments would be a useful skill. I tried clarinet and I couldn’t really get into the sound but once I tried playing saxophone I was able to get the sound.


I didn’t know that you lived in California? Were you born there?

Yeah, I was born in Los Angeles, California.


I know you recently went with the band and the orchestra to play Carnegie Hall in New York. How was that experience?

Oh it was great. I mean, even just being right in the center of New York. I can see how everything around it whether it’s Central Park or Times Square or numerous of the hold-in-the-wall food places, it all adds to this ambiance and culture of New York City which is that it’s very busy and fast-paced. So it won’t’ slow down for you, especially for us tourists and I was a first timer. But at the same time it’s just a way to get a sense that the world that you live in is much bigger. It was a very enlightening experience for me.


I’m curious as to what kind of music you like and why?

When I was younger and even as I grew up I listened to a lot of Contemporary Christian music on the radio. Faith is a very big part of my life. Recently, I’ve gotten very much into hip-hop and rap. I really enjoy rap music. These past two weeks a lot of new [music] releases came out so I don’t have any more money left on my iTunes account. Rap is the main go-to right now.


Can you name any artists?

Okay I’ll go with Christian artists, Christian hip-pop which is what I listen to the most, and then I’ll list secular. Christian artists would definitely be  Andy Mineo, Lecrae, KB, JGivens, NF, Tony Tillman. On the secular side, it’s mostly Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole; I’m waiting for their collab to be released soon hopefully. Oh, and Chance the Rapper.


Do you have any inspirations for when you’re playing music?

Specifically when I’m playing the saxophone, I used to very much just play what was on the page and that’s important to to do but because since I’m also in jazz band I had to learn how to improvise. I had to learn to be a lot more expressive and play more dynamics. There’s this one group called the Low Down Grass Band. I remember one of the first songs they played was “I Got That Feeling.” They came out from the sides of the stage and they were jumping around, dancing, it was really unexpected. That kind of energy and audacity, as I continue to get older teaches me to not be a slave to the page.


You’re the co-captain of WY’s Slam Poetry team and you’ve been featured in some literary magazines. Can you tell me a bit about your experiences with slam versus your other work? Is one more interesting to you, freeing or rewarding?

With slam it’s interesting because it’s more in the presentation. It’s not necessarily what you say but how you say it. There’s definitely good content that’s shared. But so much of it’s in the presentation. I think when I’m writing for a contest, it’s a lot more formal in the sense that it’s not as conversational. When I’m doing slam, it’s more of a personal level–I’m inviting you to see what my world is like. Because of that, the world I come from is a more raw, uncut version. With my literary writing it’s a lot more of me figuring out how I can use the best diction or syntax to present a more polished [piece]. The poem that I won an award for, which is called “Berwyn Battles” was about me living in the Northside. I put it in the context of me being this runner, I’m a track runner who’s running. As I’m heading to my home I’m wondering how I see people who live on the west and south side, how I have more resources and I’m much more privileged than they are. I’m running and just as I’m about to cross the finish line, I run to the safety of my home. It was a lot more conceptual and this [slam] is something I’d present to you.


And what magazine was that poem featured in?

It was in the Rutledge Magazine. It was very surreal to see myself and write my own bio in the third person.


Do you have goals in mind concerning the future of your writing or music?

A long-term fantasy goal is to release a hip-hop album with a lot of the artists I mentioned before featured on it. More realistically, though, I want to be published whether that’s releasing my own book of poems or being published in a magazine. With music I’d want to keep that up as a hobby, as a pastime. I think ultimately what I’ve realized is using language and poetry to connect to others is such a great platform to understand where others are coming from, to be cognisant of what others are going through.


Here is Zachary Lee’s Can’t Read Like Me, a poem he performed at this year’s Louder Than a Bomb poetry festival.



“The bible is just a book!”


Flipping through its pages, you can tell by one look,


It’s a crutch for preacher and an easy cop-out for the crook,


Armed with ignorance and spite, these skeptics pierce my side,


Sticking spears of false doctrine into my faith, poking fun at my divine,


Out of their doubt, they turn God’s word into a book of fallacies and lies,


But look at how they read…


Sockets are a hollow, empty abyss,


Scanning pages and consuming them like locust,


They can’t conquer this goliath task of belief,


Their minds are Noah’s ark sinking in a wave of lies,


Their tongues hiss hate and spell their own demise…It’s really no surprise…


That, when they flip to the end they don’t get revelations


They miss the Mark like they only read Matthew, Luke, and John


I can’t convince them that this book is the best I ever read, they’re too far gone,


So I’m proposing a new do it like me challenge,


No quans will be hit and no cars will be whipped,


Let these living pages flip on their own, going to a verse that the soul needs


To rely on God’s word every day, to learn to read the bible like me


With my eyes closed, teeth clenched like tighter than sin’s grip


Mouth parted like the Red sea, unleashing a cacophony of praise into the sky,


No, I don’t think you read like I do…


Hands caressing gaunt slices of truth,


Fingers commanding pens more than 10 times where to make their mark and underline,


I don’t think you read like I do…


Psalms pull my soul down to the depths of Sheol,


No matter how far I reach to save it, I know I can’t,


Tears stream down my cheeks, like Moses on the River Jordan,


Making a pool of guilt that my feet run across,


Knowing that no matter how hard I try, I can never reach perfection


I don’t think you read like I do,


Scooping handfuls of scripture on my soul, hoping to fill it knowing I will be satisfied,


That though my soul deserves to be crucified, Jesus took my place,


Now in times of trouble, all I have to do is look upon his face,


I see his word, a buffet piled high, filled with 66 different selections,


It doesn’t matter which one you pick they’ll all point to the same direction


They’ll parch your thirst as each verse packs a spiritual punch,


So as I eat in communion, and read like I do


I want you to feel Amens break and roll open the tomb of your heart,


My hallelujahs make you soar on the wings of eagles,


Ciabatta and Sourdough are no match for heavenly manna,


But I know that I live not on bread alone, but by the words of one who gets bread from stone


So there’s an open spot and seat at this table,


Our numbers aren’t limited to 12, come if you are able,