Emma McKee - Stitch Gawd

Meet Emma McKee: Hip-Hop’s Very First Cross Stitch Artist

Emma McKee isn’t your typical Chicago hip-hop fan. Her West Town apartment could double as a museum: autographed posters from her favorite shows hang on the wall, along with Chance the Rapper’s Billboard covers, artist collectible items, and a living room corner dedicated to stitching with thread and works in progress.

But she’s not just a fan. The Stitch Gawd is the nation’s very first hip-hop cross stitch artist. She personally stitches items for her (and your) favorite musicians and cultural tastemakers, including Chance the Rapper, Saba, Smino, SZA, Lil Yachty, Kendrick Lamar, the list goes on…

Emma has previously been highlighted in some of hip-hop’s biggest publications. Not just because she creates bomb ass jackets with cross-stitching (and did so before the Gucci trend), but also because of her barter-only system. Each item that she stitches is made only because she really wants to. They’re created in celebration of the true connections she fosters with individual artists and creatives throughout the city.

Ironically, she has met every artist she’s created for through pure chance encounters around the city, starting with Chance the Rapper who she met years ago through a mutual friend, Kevin Coval, during an open mic performance. They later reconnected when she tagged him in a post on Twitter. She has just finished working on a piece for Kendrick Lamar, who will receive his jacket from label-mate and friend SZA. It’s all about who you know.

Stitch Gawd Rough Sketch
The sketch for Stitch Gawd’s Kendrick Lamar piece.

I was immediately drawn to Emma for her humility. She absolutely recognizes her talent, but she also acknowledges the luck, or as she puts it karma, that’s driven each of these encounters. Because of this, she’s embedded in Chicago culture – while born in Kansas City and raised in St. Louis, she’s got Chicago’s four stars tattooed behind her left ear. Emma recognizes Chicago’s role in her success as a hip-hop cross stitch artist (the title itself still blows my mind…) and she aims to continue to highlight the beauty of Chicago in her work going forward.  

My evening with the Stitch Gawd was a storytelling hour. She spent nearly the entire time orating her interactions with cultural tastemakers, both in Chicago and abroad, with me astonishingly absorbing every recount.

Like the time that she flew to LA for Chance’s Grammy’s party. Yeah, that night that he won all three Grammy’s, giving birth to the iconic “three” cap.

Speaking of that cap, Hannibal Burress personally picked one off a tree “like a hanging fruit” and passed it to her after she couldn’t reach. She even got to meet Snoop Dogg where she naturally called him “Uncle Snoop.” This is an experience only a true hip-hop fan would appreciate.

Or the time that she met Kanye on an elevator, in which she conveniently had her very own ‘Ye-inspired jacket on-hand. She purposely didn’t give him the jacket because she knew that she could do better. She knows that she’ll eventually run into him again… because everything happens for its own odd reason. With each piece that she creates, Emma knows that she’ll improve in her craft. Sometimes she likes to save the big ones for later – when she knows that she’ll be at a better point as a creative and can produce something epic enough to share.

Then there’s the time that she shared with Major Lazer.

Emma: “What’s that boujee festival in the desert?”

Me: “…Coachella?”

Emma: “Yeah, that one!”

She’d made Jillionaire of Major Lazer a button down that he wore during a performance at Coachella and would later bond with him over it in an elevator with Diplo and Walshey Fire. The same elevator that she met Kanye in – but not the same night.

With each epic story that Emma shared, it became clear that she was just as excited and shocked about her experiences as I was. Each of these interactions happened from a craft that she’d only picked up as a gift to her mother. Not to mention, a craft that she hadn’t proactively planned on sharing until now. One thing leads to another, and before you know it you’re at a Grammy’s party referring to Snoop Dogg as “Uncle Snoop.”

One thing’s for sure: this “accidental” talent is pretty damn cool. Emma’s first hip-hop piece was a replication of the photo of Chance the Rapper in front of the American flag. She still has it sitting on her bookshelf, but notes the exponential growth that she’s developed since the first time that she picked up a needle and thread.

Stitch Gawd Chance the RapperStitch Gawd Chance the Rapper

In moments where a passion becomes an expectation from people who appreciate your work, it can be difficult to maintain creative originality. It must be difficult for an artist to the Chicago stars to maintain a steady flow of ideas… stitch-block, if you will. “It happens, but eventually I’ll feel inspired again. There’s no rhyme or reason to what I create or how I feel inspired. It just happens.”

Cross stitching is an opportunity for Emma to control her artistry and even her time. “At my day job, they tell me what to do and how to do things. This is the one thing that I control. I have the right to say no and the right to work when I want to. I can do whatever the f*ck I want because I can and it’s mine. Nobody else’s.”

This should serve as a lesson to anyone who’s interested in pursuing a creative venture. Whether it’s a side hustle or a passion project, take pride and appreciate what’s yours. No one should control it but you.

Creative pursuits aren’t new to Emma, and they surely don’t stop at cross-stitching. She’s had her hand in stand-up comedy, producing, DJing (shout out to this weekend’s Aux Cord DJs), and even writing for a Toronto-based blog. And now, the Stitch Gawd has plans to release Stitch Tape. Stitch Tape is a collection of tracks curated completely by folks that Emma has previously gifted with jackets. Here’s where those favors come in handy… it includes production credits from Major Lazer, and anecdotes and interludes from Chicago legends like Kevin Coval, Andrew Barber, and Chief Keef.  

For someone who’s creating masterpieces for, and with, her very favorite people, I wondered what could possibly be next on the to-do list. Hell, she met Kanye in an elevator!

“I still want to create something for a Chicagoan at the Met Ball. I need to make something for Rihanna and Michelle Obama. And I’d like to have a museum exhibit with all of my jackets.” Pretty great goals – and all just as feasible as her accomplishments to date. With no written record of her existing creations, would she even know if the presumed museum exhibit was complete? She shrugged, “I guess I wouldn’t.”

Before leaving Emma’s apartment, I noticed a framed photo that had yet to be hung. The photo was of Stitch Gawd’s signature blue jean jacket for Chicago musician, Saba. Emma stitched a jacket depicting his guardian angel, cousin and musical collaborater John Walt – a young, black rapper who was brutally killed in Chicago in early 2017. Clearly emotional as she described the process behind creating and sharing the piece, Emma illustrated the strong force of energy that the jacket brings forth. She felt a special energy when she stitched it, and to this day she feels that energy when she discusses it. Out of all of the things that she’s stitched, this one is special because it’s especially important to those that she honored when she created it.

This attitude sums up her philosophy about her art – she’s not creating for credit, or even credentials, but instead out of her pure love for the culture that has fostered the ever-growing Chicago community.

Isn’t this what art is supposed to be about?

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