Teaching Through Sneakers with Tremaine Emory

Published October 28, 2020

Notre Interviews Tremaine Emory

Tremaine Emory is a storyteller. Earlier this year he worked with Levi's to release a capsule collection under his Denim Tears banner that featured his cotton wreath artwork adorning the denim in reference America’s history with chattel slavery. In April he worked with Cynthia Lu of Cactus Plant Flea Market to raise money for New York immigrant workers who were left out of the stimulus bill. Whichever medium Tremaine’s working in, you’ll find a consistent and intentional effort to not only advocate for Black people, but to also educate viewers on the Black American experience. His new collaboration with Converse, available at Notre tomorrow, is no different. Tremaine has applied the design of artist David Hammons' African-American Flag, itself a riff on Marcus Garvey's Pan-African flag, and applied it to the familiar silhouette of the Converse Chuck Taylor 70 in both high- and low-top. 

Back in May when the protests spurred by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd swept across America, Tremaine was collaborating with Converse and challenging its parent company, Nike, to do more than just donate $40 million dollars to support the fight to dismantle systemic racism. As Tremaine tells it, Converse rose to the challenge. Together they decided to link with the artist Hank Willis Thomas’ organization, For Freedoms, to create a series of graphics works around the shoe that will digitally and physically be activated in five key battleground states — Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. The proceeds made from this collaboration will also be donated to the Black Voters Matter Fund and For Freedoms to help further their goal of getting more Black people to become more civically engaged, while also providing educational resources on the process.

I had the chance to speak with Tremaine about his first encounter with Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag, the intersection of activism and commercialism, and what he believes needs to be done far past the election on November 3.

Adeshola Makinde
Tremaine Emory

With this Converse collaboration I’ve heard you mention a handful of times that you want it to empower people of color to feel like we own this country. Could you elaborate on what that means and how you intend to do that?

We've been an instrumental part in building this country, taking care of this country, fighting for this country, dying for this country. So many levels you need to talk about. Let's talk about consumerism. Who spends the most money on luxury clothing? Minorities. We have to start realizing this place can't run without us. It wouldn't have been built without us and actually can't continue to run without us, on every level. Not just athletes, artists, and musicians—it’s everything. It's really just as much ours and maybe even one could say more ours than theirs, as far as talking about the power structure:  white male patriarchy.

Ironically, I discovered David Hammons work through you. What was your visceral reaction when you first saw his piece African-American Flag?

I think in a form of “flipped,” because I grew up in music and independent sportswear, which now people call streetwear. So, when I see how David flipped Marcus Garvey's flag and remixed it with the American flag, I thought it was amazing. I thought it was dope, just on aesthetic. That was my first take, and then I'm like, "Wow, he took the Marcus Garvey RBG colors, combined it with the American flag,” and what that means. It’s art, so you can read into it as you like. Is it a fuck you? Is it combining with this country, assimilating with it, or assimilating with us? It's interesting, because because the first flag was red, black, and green stripes. Then David Hammons interpreted it, then Chris Ofili, he interpreted it in the 2000s. He took the Union Jack and made it red, black, and green. A lot of Chris Ofili's early work was paying homage to David Hammons. It’s been fun to insert myself into the red, black, and green flag manipulation lineage.

Notre Interviews Tremaine Emory

You were able to talk to David Hammons this past summer to discuss the African-American Flag, what it meant to you and him respectively and black people as a whole. What was that conversation like? Did it offer some clarity on your mission?

The conversation was short. [Laughs] In totality, I think he just wanted to see, what's this guy about? Is he just running game or is he about something? The last thing he said to me was, "I trust you to do the right thing. You got my blessing.” He was just trying to see what I smelled like, for lack of a better word. But he's very respectful, and I'm really grateful he called, because it wasn't even about a legality thing, it was a principle thing, and for him to give me that pass meant a lot. I just know he doesn't take time out to call to check in with many people from what I've read and people I know that are friends with him. An artist friend of mine that knows him was like, "Wow. That made my week. David called you."

With this Converse collaboration you decided to work with Hank Willis Thomas and his art collective For Freedoms to help push the voting initiative behind these shoes. What made you want to work with him on this?

I got to give that one up to Jon Roy at Converse and his team. That was at their suggestion. I knew who Hank was and knew of his work, and once they brought him up I was like, "Yes, yes, yes." Hank’s a great man, great artist, and his organization For Freedoms, they're great people, and they did a great job on those three posters they made. Maybe even more important than the posters were the conversations. All the Zoom calls that me, my team, Jon, and the Converse team would have with Hank and his team. I learned the power of not being one person doing a thing. Not that I'm just one person—I have colleagues to help me run Denim Tears—but Hank empowers this whole team of people on the charitable side of things and all the stuff that For Freedoms does. And, like myself, he doesn't take himself too seriously, nor does anyone on the team. That's the most refreshing thing, when someone doesn't take themselves too seriously, you know? Having joy in the fight is a part of their collective, too, because sometimes it can be all doom and gloom. Whether it's going to vote, going to march or whatever, just find joy in it. I learned that from them, too.

Whether it's going to vote, going to march or whatever, just find joy in it.

Aside from just voting, I’ve seen you constantly mention it’s important that people remain involved far past the election on November 3rd. What does that look like to you?

It looks like getting involved in midterms, local elections, knowing what's going on in your district, what's going on with your governor, what's going on with your mayor, what's going on with your police chief, and what's going on in your community and keep showing up and voting. For example, Amazon was trying to open up a warehouse distribution center in Long Island City. And the people voted to not let it open, so Amazon can't open up their warehouse and take over a huge part of Long Island City. That shows you voting works, you know? And that's a very local thing. You have to pay attention when that stuff comes in the mail, open it and read it, take the time out, get involved. Let your neighbors know and bother your family. For a lot of people, the political process is like the Super Bowl. So many people watch the Super Bowl, but a lot of the people that watch the Super Bowl don't watch the regular season, so we got to treat this voting thing like a fantasy football league. You’ve got to make it a part of your lifestyle. That's what I mean by that.

Notre Interviews Tremaine Emory

A few months ago you challenged Nike to do more than their pledge to donate $40 million to support the Black community. How important is it to you that people with your platform challenge these large corporations they collaborate with?

I feel that I also challenged myself to do more than I was prepared to do, and I think you only can push someone as far as you're willing to go. I urge people to think about what's right for them. I knew I wouldn't feel good if I put this shoe out that represents this and then I don't activate the shoe to help what's going on. The most immediate thing I felt like I could do for the surmounting transgressions that kept happening to black people was to help educate people on voting, and do my part to get more people to vote this time around in comparison to four years ago. And I knew I would need Converse's help. I just wanted to see what they would do, and I was pleasantly surprised.

I do urge people to not always put the dollar first, because, cool, I'm donating money from this first drop, all profits to Black Voters Matter and For Freedoms, and I'm still going to be alright. We can make a little less money or a lot less money and still be okay and help more people. This isn't necessarily putting money in no one's pocket or giving anyone a job, it's about educating people about the voting process and getting them involved with voting. I think when you challenge people, you learn. So, I learned a lot about Converse, but I also learned about the team—Jesse, Jon, Tyler and Tamra. I learned a lot about what they care about and what this election means to them, what this country means to them, their feelings on systematic racism, and they're all in line with mine. Not that I had any doubt, but you don't know. That's a great thing about challenging something—you get to see what's really there, and the heart and soul are the people. Converse is a corporation, but there's real people working there, real human beings that are down to fight for things.

I feel that I also challenged myself to do more than I was prepared to do, and I think you only can push someone as far as you're willing to go.

What’s the origin of the Liberty Rock in Queens and what does it mean to you?

It’s located in the neighborhood that I grew up in—this is before I lived there or even existed. This rock was a World War II Memorial, and it had a plaque on it. A couple of people in the neighborhood wanted to paint it red, black, and green, and the city was like, "You can't." And then it became a battle, and they protested and fought for it, and the city compromised and said, "We'll move the World War II memorial somewhere else and you guys can paint the rock red, black, green,” which is to emulate and stand for the things that Marcus Garvey's flag stands for. Blood of the people, the black skin, and the bountifulness of Africa. And it's been there ever since. LL Cool J album covers. You can't go that way on Farmers' Boulevard without passing it. My first real iconography related to those colors. I'd seen those colors before, but that rock burned them in my brain. Sometimes the rock meant nothing to me, sometimes it meant a lot, and then sometimes it was tragically ironic that such a powerful symbol of solidarity and strength was surrounded by chaos. Some of the things I saw in Northside, Jamaica, Queens, specifically in that area of St. Albans. A lot of feelings. It's interesting, too, because I've been to a lot of different hoods, especially in New York, and very few have a monument like that, you know?

Notre Interviews Tremaine Emory

Do you remember the first time you could say you noticed it in that way? What age would you say?

Nine, ten years old. That's when we moved to Jamaica, Queens. That's the first time I noticed it, because I connected it to Spike Lee because of 40 Acres and a Mule, and some of the imagery in his clothing. I guess the first connection was pro-Black stuff. Leather medallions with Africa on it, that kind of eighties-era stuff that I would see, and then seeing that in the nineties was like, "Oh, okay. Yeah."

What book would you recommend to someone wanting to learn about the true Black experience in America?

My dad always taught me to read autobiographies because it will help you with your self-confidence. You'll see what people go through and what they're capable of persevering through, and also you'll see they're not that much different than you. It's just certain choices they make. Race Matters by Cornel West is a great one, because it talks about everything, and then you could get specific. A very powerful book is Assata Shakur's autobiography. We don't really represent women enough in this thing when it comes to people of color. So I say Race Matters accompanied by ASSATA, or books on Angela Davis would be a good way to see the Black experience in America through the eyes of a Black woman. I think that more people need to, including myself, see it through that lens.

I catch bars from 18-year-olds and sometimes I catch bars from my 93-year-old grandmother. I try to seek as much knowledge as possible.

Education is a big part of all the projects you work on. How important is education to you in this long fight for equality?

Education is everything. I think that my mojo comes from books, movies, shooting the shit with people, talking to people, talking to young people, talking to old people. I catch bars from 18-year-olds and sometimes I catch bars from my 93-year-old grandmother. I try to seek as much knowledge as possible. Education is survival, it’s health and it's happiness. You need education to help you navigate the human condition. Education is how you can fight against your oppressor and not hate them. Education is how you can have compassion and empathy, even for those that have hurt you. You learn that stuff. Education also lets you know it could be worse. I’ve learned about the plight of so many cultures around the world—Indigenous people, Black people, Jewish people, gay people, women, transgender people. Through education, I know about all their plights, and it makes mine more bearable because I know I'm not alone. I'm not siloed. It's not just happening to my people or just to me. That’s why education is so important. And without education, you lack humanity, which is the worst thing you could do. It's how people become apathetic to what others go through.