It’s been slightly over a year since Emma McKee, Chicago’s number one hip-hop fan and cross-stitch extraordinaire, sat in a trailer at Lollapalooza and talked with us about showing gratitude to the artists/creatives of the city that she loves. Now she’s working on tour jackets for Chance the Rapper, designing custom garments for SZA and working on a top secret project that she promises will bring together a fair amount of the recipients of her goodwill patch trades. To simply say that time flies with regards to McKee’s artistic output and boundless upward momentum would almost be disrespectful to her undying hustle and passion for her craft. Yes, it’s true that time flies, but it’s nothing compared to the hard work of the “Stitch Gawd.”
And this onslaught of good fortune isn’t lost on McKee. “People are so much more excited about the stuff now than they were a year ago,” says Mckee. “People are having arguments about who’s going to get their [jacket] first and who’s going to get ‘the rawest one.’ It’s so absurd! And I’ve met so many amazing and cool and interesting people all because of jackets. Who would have imagined?”
When looking at her progress and her steadfast vision, it’s hard to believe that McKee didn’t imagine this or, really, plan this herself from the beginning. We recently caught up with the multi-hyphenate artist to discuss how far she’s come since Lolla 2016, her goals for the future and why Chicago’s still the city that’s got her heart. (Hint: it’s the people.)
What’s the feeling that your life has had since we last talked?
I was talking to a friend of mine from high school last night, for the first time in three years or something like that, and he called me up out of nowhere last night just to tell me to keep going and doing my thing. And I was like “Damn, really? Okay.” He was just [saying things] like “I’m so glad you got out of Tulsa, I’m so glad you didn’t end up marrying that guy”—my high school boyfriend—you know all the classic things that keep you in small town America stories? I told him, “Now, more than ever in my life, I feel the most like myself.”
It’s just a strange thing to be considered a capital A artist — like actual ass artist, respected artist like Hebru Brantley, Brandon Breaux, and Jas Peterson. And it’s gotten some taking used to with people calling me this, being treated as such or a designer! I’ve added a whole bunch of new names to my resume, I’ve been called a lot of new names — not like bad names — but like I’ve been called a creator and a curator, a lot of people say things that I’m like a DJ Khalid of Chicago. I’ll go out in Chicago or people will address me as “Gawd” or “Stitch Gawd” and it’s absurd! So just adjusting to that has been like really wonderful and amazing because how crazy is it to go from Chicago’s number one fan girl to having fans and being on that level.
When we met you were Chicago’s No. 1 fan and now you’re part of the creative scene. What’s it like to make that transition? Do you still feel like that fan?
Yes, I’m still a diehard fan, but I’m also learning to become a fan of different aspects of people. I told you, last time, that Saba Pivot is my favorite rapper — he’s still my favorite rapper— I was a fan of his storytelling and how he made his music, but now I’m a fan of Saba the human being. I’m a fan of the fact that he got his little crib set up and went on tour and did his thing. So that kind of fandom is different. But the really cool thing about going from fan to peer is that I get to learn so much about these people and these artists, not just rappers, but all spectrums of artists in Chicago. I get to learn what they like and what they don’t and it’s so interesting and the conversations are so much better … and in that regard I’m very lucky that I have a seat at the table for that.
How do you think the rest of that table is stacking up for Chicago right now?
Chicago’s such an interesting, dynamic place. Maybe because I’m living here and I’m in it a little bit, I shy away from calling it the “Chicago Renaissance,” but man is there a lot of good shit coming out of Chicago right now on all fronts. I guess we’re in the midst of a movement. A movement only happens when all people and pockets of Chicago are moving at the same time, like they all have to be activated, and I think that’s happening … All the little parts of the community are being activated and inspiring one another. That’s what the landscape is now, we had this whole burst of excitement around a couple of rappers and that’s exciting because it put a lot of eyes on Chicago and you know rising tides lift all boats.
Do you have a favorite jacket?
I really, really love the “Long Live John Walt” jacket that Saba wore on his tour. That same weekend that I was in LA for the Grammys, John Walt — Walter — was stabbed downtown right outside the L at 3 in the afternoon and he died. He was talking on the phone to his mom. I only met him once but he was the nicest guy ever, like so nice and so quiet and had such a good energy about him. Half of Chicago was out in LA and half of us were in Chicago just trying to figure out how to deal with this. And Saba — it was two weeks before he was going on his first headlining tour — one of his musical collaborators, one of the founders of the pivot gang, his cousin, someone that he loves is just gone.
When I heard about it, I had the weirdest impulse I knew I just had to make a John Walt jacket for Saba and I did. I made it in the speed of light and it was the craziest thing … a few days after his tour started, Saba texted me and said that this jacket has so much power, “I feel like I’m wearing a suit of armor.” That was the first time that my art felt important to me at all, I think that’s when I started calling it art.
What’s the dream future for you and your art?
I want to be an artist, man. I want to be able to one day be able to make a living off of my ideas — however that manifests itself. I do still work for trades — the nice thing will be when I’m able to show all the people the trades that I’ve been working on, man that’s going to be quite a reveal.
I’m cashing in my trades — there are a lot of artists in Chicago that are working on this with me … I’m trading art for art honestly with the intention of making more art so we can show off a little bit. Why not? We deserve it. Dreams don’t come easy; you’ve got to work hard for that shit!
Do you want your jackets to hang in museums?
You know how the last time we talked I said that these were my goals and then I reached those goals? And now I’m [thinking] “Oh shit, what are my goals now?” So I have two new goals: I’d like to dress someone from Chicago for the Met Gala — Lena [Waithe], the comedy writer from Chicago that would be amazing, I’d love to make something for her — and I’d love to have an exhibit at the MCA or somewhere that’s got all these mannequins with my jackets and the big beautiful photos that people always take of them.
[I’d love to] get the museum to handle asking people for them back and seeing the condition of them — like the ones that have been really worn and the ones that haven’t. I think it’s really interesting. What is people’s relationship to these things? Is it clothing? Is it art? You know, that really fun existential question of “what is art.” I think it will be cool to see how people interacted with it — like a sign of wear is not a bad thing for what I’m doing. It’s meant to be visceral and experienced; it’s mean to be yours. Some people hang it up and I appreciate the respect that people give it, like Saba did that at first and then he just started wearing it like every damn day because he loves it and he feels good in it and I love that too. I think a retrospective of all the jackets someday [would be amazing]. Also I’d like to design a [Chicago] Bulls jersey someday! So now I just have to keep doing what I’m doing and make sure that the right people get the right things.