Bree Runway is on a mission to revolutionize Black women dominating in pop music, and rightfully so. Pushing every boundary possible to normalize and change the discriminative small-mindedness of people who instantly categorise her and other dark-skinned Black female artists like Normani and Kelly Rowland as “R&B”, Bree Runway is here to stay and slay. Refusing to be pigeonholed into a box by anybody, her bold, fierce and rhapsodic confidence unapologetically compliments her gender-bending-gender-fluid creativity.
2020 has been the year of manifestation for Bree. From working with the likes of Maliibu Miitch and Rina Sawayama to elegantly gracing Harper’s Bazaar September Issue alongside Jorja Smith, Clara Amfo and CKTRL, Bree is busy building her legacy by staying true to herself. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve designed into my life by asking God,” she tells me as we sit across from each other at the York & Albany restaurant in Camden. “I’m living out everything I said I would because I manifested it into my life”.
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Born Brenda Mensah in Hackney - East London, the home to a generation of innovative young Black independent artists, she used the many hybrid cultural backgrounds around her to mould the woman and artist she is today.
“Growing up, I never felt like I had to centre myself in certain friendships or with certain people to be cool. So I would mix with everyone no matter their race or ethnicity. I had Somalian friends, Asian friends, White friends” she tells me. “I’ve always given people the chance to get to know me because I don’t want someone to think that they have to be the coolest person in the room for me to speak to them. One thing I always loved about being from East is how the hood people mix with the posh people who mix with the poor people, and that’s what I do in my music now, I mix a lot of genres”.
Visually, Bree is the epitome of excellence when it comes to turning a look both on and off camera. Her fashion sense, in conjunction with her eye-pleasing music videos and majestic energetic sound, has placed her high on many’s lists as the ruler new school for independent Black UK female acts. “I’m my biggest critic, and I know that what I’ve done thus far is great and I’m proud of myself for that”.
Citing the many pop icons from the 99 and the 2000s such as Kelis, Lil’ Kim, Britney Spears and Madonna as her main inspirations, she tells me why they helped her find her aesthetic growing up and how it plays a part in her career now. “How they pushed their creativity was groundbreaking. They weren’t afraid to be daring with their music and their fashions, and that’s me right now. I dress like how my soul feels”.
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Since her debut back in 2015, Bree has caught the eyes and ears of many including her idol Missy Elliott. With three sublime EPs and tracks under her belt, last night she dropped her fourth single Little Nokia alongside the music video directed by Ali Kurr, which got its premiere last night on BBC Radio 1 with Annie Mac.
“'Little Nokia' is wild. It’s about one of my drug dealer baes that’s why in the song I say ‘got Kylie, Madonna, got Justin, can’t trust him, yeah mama said throw him in the dustbin’. I think it’s exciting when you put hood affairs on a beat like 'Little Nokia'. When I went into the studio, I said I wanted something aggressive and explosive where I can envision myself doing a show. When the song comes, I come popping out from underneath the ground, and everyone is screaming. That’s very me. I barely make songs for people to chill to”.
Despite the current global pandemic, her work ethic hasn’t stopped - in fact; it’s only pushed her to work harder. “For me, making music during COVID and the lockdown has been pretty normal. That sounds crazy, but I’m a DIY artist; I’ve always had a £200 studio set up in my room, that’s where I made all my first EPs and my SoundCloud EPs,” she says.
“APESHIT was done pre-lockdown, but Damn Daniel and Gucci were all recorded in my room. I used this time (lockdown) to further everything I already knew from when I started out but with more knowledge now, and more creativity, better beat selections, working with more producers remotely. For me, it felt more like I was going back to my roots where there’s no separation. It’s not just my bedroom; it’s my office, my gym, my studio. It’s everything to me”.
Last year, she released her third EP 'Be Runway' which caught the attention of many due to its bold and impressive statement towards discrimination and prejudice surrounding skin tone. Spraying half her face and body in white paint, the project addressed her own experiences with colourism and how she approached the raw reality and emotions behind it.
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Explaining her most significant challenge with approaching colourism for the EP, she explains why the EP artwork needed to convey the message it did. She explains “It was vital to me because it’s a part of my story towards me building up self-confidence, finding myself and my beauty and loving and appreciating who I am because that’s the one thing that used to make me hate me”.
She continues: “I wanted the EP cover to be a symbol of strength and how to overcome discrimination. I’m so proud that I can make art from my past pain. I can help someone love their skin tone and be happy with themselves because they see how much I have embraced me. That’s where I was coming from with the artwork. It wasn’t from a place of hurt; it was more to catapult the power that I feel into the world and be like no, I’m now down and out about this anymore, I love who I am because this my truth. I am a beautiful dark-skinned woman”.
“There were two messages behind the inspiration for the artwork on the EP. The first message was about the many scales and lengths that we as dark-skinned people sometimes go through to remove our Blackness to fit into places to make others feel comfortable. That could be from changing your voice at work, so you don’t sound or come across as aggressive to changing your skin tone because you’re being bullied and hate the connotation of your skin to comparing the success rates around darker skin vs lighter skin” she says.
“Then there was the second message which was about the other side of being dark-skinned. Seeing all those people that want everything you have aka the White people. They want the rhythm, the clothes, the bodies, the hips, the lips. We are the blueprint, and it shows 100%. We have everything that the world wants and more, and they are trying to embody that so what’s the problem here. Is it just the skin tone?”
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Her biggest pet peeve is being categorized as R&B when her sound expands beyond that. “I always feel the need to correct people anytime they call me an R&B sensation. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it. I’m not R&B. I need to keep reinforcing this because the world is so obsessed with labelling people and putting them in boxes that sometimes people lose who they are, and then they start obsessing and put themselves in a box. Then people don’t feel comfortable stepping out and being who they are because this is what they are being told is how they should be, and it’s so wrong,” she tells me.
“I don’t feel like just because I’m Black, I should just be making R&B. I’m just open to anything. I’m such a rascal and a rebel at heart and just because I have a good voice that doesn’t make me R&B”.
With the year slowly but surely is coming to a close, Bree is looking forward to what the future has to bring. “2021 is going to be even more explosive than right now. The album is coming, which is exciting. More new music, more performances - I’m going to be giving you performances without being back onstage - Bree style, wild, unexpected and empowering. More collaborations, more fashion, just more everything. I will continue to raise the bar for women like me and silence my haters because I don’t care what anybody thinks or says about me”.
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Words: Shakeena Johnson
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