Taking Flight: Bree Runway Interviewed

Taking Flight: Bree Runway Interviewed

“Everyone knows I’m in my own lane here…”

Bree Runway is one of the most-hyped artists of her generation. Yet she’s also a sensitive young woman from Hackney, with Brenda Mensah left to locate her path through an often-hostile industry. Balancing fan expectation against personal triumph, her rise is a manifesto in duality. Bree, meet Brenda.

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Whilst the world scrambled during the early spring of 2020 a young woman from Hackney was preparing the final stages of her next major label release, a sophomore EP two years since signing into one of the biggest labels in the world. Her debut single for the project was ready and her music video finished, a Hype Williams-reminiscent, fully choreographed number rarely seen in UK music videos. Having released music online herself since the age of seventeen whilst studying music technology at college, our protagonist was a star in the making before she ever signed a dotted line or walked into a boardroom. The EP would push her into wider audiences that were ripe for as well as sounds, taking listeners everywhere from ‘electro-infused pop’ to a metallic fusion of pop-trap.

Two years later, Bree Runway is an industry darling juggling PFW invites and sold-out headline shows with brand deals and BRIT nominations. “I’m just doing me and the world is following,” Bree smiles as we discuss her sweeping success this awards season. From possibly one of the most iconic MOBOs performances in recent times that saw her start her performance by entering the building on a motorbike, to her first BRIT attendance - which she describes as a “crazy back-to-back experience that was so amazing, even in the intensity and stress in pulling everything together” - there isn’t a billboard or a cover Bree Runway hasn’t graced in the past year. And she’s just getting started.

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The heroine of our story, and most importantly - of her own - is Bree Runway. The debut single in question was ‘APESHIT’ and the EP ‘2000&4EVA’, both of which kick-started a chain of events that saw Bree Runway take the world by storm at a time when many artists were at a loss without access to their resources. Bree’s honesty, resourcefulness and drive - her East London hustle - shaped the trajectory of her career in a way that she believed it would all along. Where others may delegate social media use to professionals or PRs, Bree’s thoughtful engagement with her fans and the wider public in general, has elevated her status as “that girl”, even after a short-lived TikTok consultant was onboarded to keep her on-trend. “I tried to avoid TikTok for so long, but [as an artist] you just can’t can you? I had somebody assigned to me to show me the ‘hottest trends’” Bree laughs whilst mimicking TikTok dances on Zoom. “That was short-lived. I think I’ve found my ‘thing’ on TikTok which is just showing more of my personality and bringing people into my world,” she explains.

And bring us into her world she has, forming a close friendship with TikTok starlet PinkPantheress whose bio simply reads “This is a Bree Runway stan account” in reflection of the two’s public admiration of each other, and their budding friendship. Indeed, Bree’s engaging and endearing approach to social media in a way her millennial peers often fail to grasp is what helped her land a coveted Missy Elliot feature on the final single of ‘2000&4EVA’, the funky, futuristic ‘ATM’ (produced by Richard ‘Liohn’ Zastenker, who has also produced for Gaga). It was simple as Bree replying to a tweet that drew comparisons between Missy and Bree in her 'APESHIT' video, where she quite literally ‘@’-ed Missy Elliot to ‘hop on a remix’, to which Missy responded with encouragement. Ten months later there it was - Bree Runway featuring Missy Elliot.

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As multi-faceted and multi-talented as Bree is however, like most Black women in music, she faces the seemingly unavoidable categorisation of a rapper, even as a self-confessed pop star who performs choreography routines as well as using guitar riffs. As the insular London music scene grows and the women who have worked within it for so long begin to flourish, it doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Whether it’s a veteran like Little Simz winning Best New Artist at the BRITs over a decade into her career or a genre-bending creative like Bree being nominated as a Rising Star when she is already the brightest star from these shores, years into her career, there simply isn’t enough vision, drive or ambition to give Black women the space to grow or the recognition to flourish here.

Having collaborated with a plethora of up-and-coming US female rappers such as Rico Nasty (‘Little Nokia’) Yung Baby Tate (‘Damn Daniel’) and Maliibu Mitch (‘Gucci’), she wouldn’t look out of place in a line up of US female artists, her polished videos, attention to every single detail and general aura have drawn comparisons. But the truth of the matter is that Bree has a standard of quality, paired with work ethic, that she is unwilling to compromise and unafraid to project.

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Explaining the UK market’s inability to categorise or box her into a genre, Bree draws an analogy to everybody’s favourite past-time, parties. “I feel like the UK are afraid of parties that they don’t know the dress code to - they know it will be a good time but are hesitant as they don’t know what to wear, is it a casual affair or a dressed up do - and I’m like a black lipstick and platform heels type party that everybody wants to attend but is a little scared to.”

And it’s true, Bree’s party started as a one-woman rave and ended (in true music industry style) with hundreds and the door trying to get in. Is it that the UK pool is so much smaller that Bree can’t be placed anywhere, or is it that the chances for a Black woman to make it on her own terms are so few and far in between that people are fearful or breaking the mould and ending up in the cold? “Everyone knows I’m in my own lane here and it's pretty clear, but we can have so many more people in their own lane if they weren’t scared - I just don’t care!”

Whether it was when she was self-releasing EPs straight out of college or shooting and coordinating cross-Atlantic music videos from the room in her mum’s house during lockdown, her resourcefulness and unflinching commitment in spite of barriers, Bree Runway is that girl and that cannot be bought, emulated or extinguished. It’s this ‘inner light’ as she puts it, that she tried so hard to dim for so long as a youngster, that makes her so special.

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A recent three-month trip to the US (her first professional Stateside jaunt) reaffirmed this commitment to carving one’s own lane whilst honing your inner light. “I went with zero-expectations but the trip was such a success not only in discovering things about myself as an artist, like the things my voice would do when I was just messing around on the microphone, but being in a room of like-minded people that made me feel comfortable and safe even though I barely knew them,” referring to the likes of Dawn Richard and Khalid.

“For so long, I was intimidated by the idea of even working in the US after hearing how serious they were about the way they work, and when all sorts of lauded and Grammy-nominated artists were not only working with me but were impressed by my work, I would spend the cab rides home reaffirming to myself [on my Notes app] that I am more than enough just by being myself,” she smiles. In true LA fashion, Bree came up with the melody and what would later become the opening verse for her latest single ‘Pressure’ whilst in the shower, running to the studio a matter of hours later after muttering “Shine like VV, bad like RiRi/Turn it on like TV, drip on Fiji” on the Nami-produced Baile Funk number.

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The trip was also the beginning of rediscovering Brenda. Underneath the gorgeous outfits and jet setting, there was Brenda the daughter, Brenda the cool big sister, Brenda the friend but most importantly, Brenda the person. After a decade of intense work that shaped and catapulted Bree Runway the polished pop star, it was time to tend to Brenda’s needs and wants, something Bree admits to being out of touch with. “I know what self-care looks like for Bree Runway and can do it with my eyes closed, but working out what Brenda enjoys is something I’m still discovering.”. It was Brenda who dealt with bullying and colourism as a teenager, and though you’d never guess by her megawatt smile and charming demeanour, it was Brenda’s resilience and strength (something she credits her success to) that make Bree who she is today.

The first step towards rediscovering herself was giving herself the physical space to simply be. Moving out of her mother’s Hackney home - where the video for ‘Gucci’ was filmed - and into a space where her ever-growing wardrobe could stop suffocating her. “My clothes finally have their own room so I don’t have to ask my Dior and Givenchy for permission to sleep on my bed! I can really just be a peaceful place and have the space to tend to myself.”

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Brenda needs some boundaries and space to understand my adult self, which I’ve learnt is all in my power and comes with boundaries and discipline.” As meteoric as Bree’s rise has been, this has been a decade in the making, so it comes as no surprise that she found herself overwhelmed earlier this year, at both the power and responsibility she had accrued. “It was as much empowering as it was scary to know that taking care of yourself and doing what you want is all down to you and you alone,” she explains. Being reacquainted with Brenda however, has also shaped Bree’s trajectory when it comes to making music. ‘Pressure’ being the first of a trilogy of singles following a brief hiatus symbolises a new direction as Bree further delves into new sounds, such as the percussion of the Afrobeat or the multiple guitars of the Highlife she listened to growing up in her Ghanaian household.

Where Brenda and Bree collide is when it comes to love of fashion. Whether it’s on or off stage, Bree is an ardent student of fashion, often pulling vintage pieces for award shows and red carpets (she wore vintage Jean-Paul Gaultier to the BRITS, of course). “When I was younger fashion was my armour and even when I had low self-esteem due to this warped vision of myself I always said: they can call me ugly but they can’t beat my outfit!” In 2010s Hackney where skinny jeans, tracksuits and athleisure were the norm, a teenaged Brenda would match her lime green nails to a crocodile bag, lifting pieces from her mum’s wardrobe in a way that foretold her unique forward-facing style.

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In true Millennial fashion, Bree uses her Instagram to showcase her wardrobe even in casual instances when styling herself - which has culminated in invites to Paris Fashion Week with exclusive invites to Louis Vuitton and Kenzo (where she met Gunna and Kanye West). “I was at a Kenzo fitting before the show and they were telling me it was a very small, exclusive list of attendees and I remember asking myself - well then why did you invite me?” she laughs. With nods from the major fashion houses so early on in her career, it seems Gucci does indeed want a girl they can call, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her as the face of a luxury brand any time soon. She points to her own merch line as a means to her inevitable pivot into fashion, with capsule pieces available at shows to not only commemorate and share her music but also her style with her ‘runwayz’ fans.

Considering how everything has fallen into place for Bree through endless consistency it comes as no surprise that the power of manifestation and the topic of spirituality and faith, is one that Bree can fully engage in. “My life, blessings and career are a testament to the love and protection I feel every day. How is it that I, as a dark-skinned Black girl, in an industry that wasn’t set up for people like me to make the music that I make, able to make my music connect with so many people? How do I have my idols DMing me encouragement, out of the blue? Foxy Brown literally follows seven people, why am I one of them?”

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Bree speaks frankly about her faith being a steady rock in times of fear, as much as it has been a well of strength during the best of times. “Faith has carried me throughout this entire journey,” she reflects, it’s this faith that has fuelled Bree’s aspiration for world domination: she plans to try her hand at acting, waiting for the ‘perfect role’ after having turned down a couple of opportunities that weren’t the right fit.

For the time being, her main focus is music as she gears up for her hotly-anticipated debut album; though she remains tight-lipped about any features, Bree reels off a list of dream collaborators, musicians and producers alike, from her friend and fan Doja Cat to Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and N.E.R.D’s Pharrell Williams. An artist who is impossible to box in, Bree Runway is already carving out her legacy – referencing Naomi Campbell and Beyoncé in our conversation, she’s living testimony to the laser-focussed power of taking control of your dreams.

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Words: Rahel Aklilu
Photography: Ivan Shaffer
Fashion: Shaquille Williams
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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