When Justin Tranter was a student at The Chicago Academy for the Arts, they started an AIDS benefit, a student-run variety show that helped raise awareness and advocacy for HIV/AIDS. Twenty-one years later, the annual event is still going strong and has raised tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS research, support, care and organizations.
"Being able to do that at such a young age and have that beautiful teenage fearlessness and see that that fearlessness wasn't just one timethat it left a legacymakes me prouder than anything," said Tranter, an award-winning songwriter, activist and role model originally from Hawthorn Woods, a Chicago suburb.
Tranter, who won the Songwriter of the Year at the 2018 BMI Pop Music Awards for the second consecutive year, has written pop hits for a wide range of mainstream artists such as Maroon 5, Cardi B, Julia Michaels, Nick Jonas, Imagine Dragons, Janelle Monae, Leon Bridges, Ariana Grande and more. This year, Tranter announced Facet Records, a new record label and publishing company that Tranter and A&R executive Katie Vinten founded via Warner Bros. Records.
But before making it big in the music industry, their artistic path began with a local presentation of the musical "Annie" and later, in The Academy's West Town building, where they found a community of love and acceptance that propelled Tranter to mainstream success.
In 2018, they gave back to the school with a six-figure donation that created a professional recording studio and hired a part-time professional to teach aspiring student musicians. The Justin Tranter Recording Studio opened last September and Tranter attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony and performed with students. The Academy will honor Tranter at its May 18 Arts Matter Gala at the Palmer House Hilton for the artist's impactful donation to the community.
Jason Patera, The Academy's Head of School, said the generous donation is a giant step forward for the school's culture and curriculum. In addition to creating a recording studio, Patera said Tranter's gift also allowed the school to start a new program called the Recording Arts and Commercial Music program.
"What it does is it combines world-class equipment with teaching so that our students now have the opportunity to learn hands-on on cutting-edge equipment and learn from a relevant arts professional in the field so they can get this training in a real-world manner," Patera said.
Patera began working at the school in 1998, the year Tranter graduated, but was involved with its programs since 1992, so he remembers the fearless and passionate student Tranter was. Patera said Tranter impacted the school's culture and helped make it a special place, and their contributionslike the AIDS benefitare still felt today.
"Our student body know who they are [and] look up to them," he said. "They understand what [Tranter] did for the school and them making this huge gift feels very personal to everyone in the community."
Patera said the gift shows Tranter's dedication to arts education and their commitment to giving back to an institution that was instrumental for the performer. Having dedicated students to learn the craft and follow a passion, paired with experienced faculty members and modern tools will fuel the school's community, he said.
"Justin, as an alum, created the culture that attracts the right students and now as a philanthropist, they have made the gift that helps us bring in the right tools and right teacher for this new program that does not exist at any other high school," Patera said.
Tranter said they are excited to give back to The Academy, a dream of theirs for a long time because the community helped them cultivate their passion and identity and saved them from bullying. As proudly femme and queer, they said public school in Lake Zurich was not welcoming of who they were, but when they found the arts and The Academy, "it literally saved my life," they said. Helping other students find their voice is an honor Tranter carries as well as pairing their activism work with art, a lesson they retained from The Academy.
Tranter's advocacy work continues today. In 2017, they hosted "Beyond," their second annual Spirit Day Concert benefiting GLAAD in support of LGBTQ Youth. The event raised more than $400k for GLAAD's Spirit Day anti-bullying campaign. Tranter also raised $75,000 at the 2018 GLAAD Media Awards in LA.
Tranter stressed their donation not only creatively gives students access to professional music software but that these programs can teach real, employable skills for the future. Learning to engineer, produce, vocal produce and edit music is critical for those who want to enter the music industry, they said.
Although Tranter admitted it feels odd to be a role model, it's also a representation of living their truth and fighting the mainstream system, they said. They are honored to be recognized at the upcoming gala and hopes that they can inspire future artists and other in the music industry who can use their pain and privilege for good causes.
"If by me living my truth loudly and proudly while still succeeding in a very mainstream industry, if that inspires kids, that is all I need," Tranter said. "What I am proudest of the most are my songs but [also] that I have inspired other songwriters, producers, music executives to bring their communities with them on this journey."
For information on the Art Matters Gala, including ticket information, visit www.chicagoacademyforthearts.org/gala-2019 .