Bree Runway The Renegade

Risk-taker, shapeshifter, rule-breaker; Hackney-born Bree Runway challenges expectations and categorisation – and so does her music. Read our full cover interview with Bree from the #9 ‘Make Noise’ issue.

This article originally appeared in the SS21 BRICKS #9 ‘Make Noise’ issueBuy the issue from our online store now.

WORDS Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
PHOTOGRAPHY Vasso Vu
3D DESIGN William Stepel
LIGHTING Mike Wright
PHOTO ASSISTANT Tim Wheeler
STYLING Holly Wood
MUA Bernicia Boateng
HAIR Seraiah

Risk-taker, shapeshifter, rule-breaker; Hackney-born Bree Runway challenges expectations and categorisation – and so does her music. Raised on an eclectic diet of Queen, Lady Gaga and Ghanaian genres like High Life, Bree’s veins overflow with legendary inspiration, yet she radiates originality. Bree’s groundbreaking DIY music spans time and space, from glossy yet destructive pop to nu-metal to the beats of trap – it is electrifying and genre-defying – while her music videos vibrate with the energy and aesthetics of early-2000s MTV.

Boldly forging her path through the music world, Bree is an “80s tycoon”, self-made and self-assured, but behind the Armani suit and the dissolving cigar smoke sits a dark-skinned ambitious Black girl who overcame the struggles of colourism and bullying to dream “beyond her postcode.” Now, she wants to use her creativity and her privilege to ensure that every dark-skinned girl feels like a star.

Prishita: Hi Bree! How are you? I’d love to hear how the cover shoot went with Vasso! 

Bree: You’re gonna go crazy over the images. It was unreal – so creative. The energy was crazy. It was such a great day; I left here at 7am and we finished at 8:30pm, but everyone was still on a high because the images were so great, the looks were so great! I was so happy.

P: That’s amazing! I think that it’s so cool that you’re a proper DIY musician; there’s so many skills involved there. What value do you think your DIY background brings to how you approach your work now?

B: It’s made everything a lot easier and harder. I don’t think there’ll ever be a day when I’ll just lift my hands up and say, “OK, you guys do this, I’m not going to have anything to do with it.” I’m signing off on everything, down to the colour of a single strand of something – everything is Bree approved. It’s nice because everybody really trusts my vision, but at the same time, it is quite stressful because I always want to go for gold; I always want to aim big and do my absolute best – so sometimes my brain hurts.

I’m signing off on everything, down to the colour of a single strand of something – everything is Bree approved. It’s nice because everybody really trusts my vision, but at the same time, it is quite stressful because I always want to go for gold; I always want to aim big and do my absolute best – so sometimes my brain hurts.

Bree Runway

P: I can relate to that! Your music, your videos, your vibe; you seem so sure with exactly what you want to put out into the world while still being experimental with it. How did you hone all your diverse inspirations growing up into finding your ultimate sound?

B: I live by the fact that you can be inspired by someone but you don’t have to copy them. One day I could be inspired by Chief Keef and the next day by Freddie Mercury’s melodies – it varies. But the thing that never makes me crack a brain cell is that I’m never trying to be them; I always want to be me. I could even be inspired by the sky, but I’m like, “what about the sky do you like? Ok, let’s get hair the same colour as the sky.” I feel like it’s important to respect people’s art and not completely mirror it, but to go off how it makes you feel – however a person’s art makes me feel is what gives birth to my inspiration. That’s why it looks original or fresh, because I always want to do things Bree’s way.

P: I’ve read in an interview that you previously did that you navigated some pushback from your mum in pursuing a career in music. I feel like immigrant parents feel that extra pressure to make sure their kids don’t have to go through the same struggles as them and are able to be financially secure. How did your relationship with your parents influence your sense of identity and also your creative journey?

B: I think that with rebellion and breaking the rules at home came my identity. I just had to say, “Listen, I’m cutting the sides of my hair right now, I’m putting three diamonds in my shoulder right now, I’m piercing my wrist.” I had to keep enforcing that my way is not your way, my melody is not your melody; you sing your song and let me sing mine – everyone thinks I’m crazy!

P: Your attitude of “I just do what I want to do” reminds me of that interview with Grace Jones where she gets called “aggressive” and “masculine” for being self-assured and powerful and she just turns it on its head and asks the interviewer something like “what’s wrong with just doing what you want when you feel like it if you feel like it?” Do you see yourself reflected in her attitudes and words? 

B: She’s someone that has a voice and just owns it. Sometimes, as Black women, we have to water down our voices to seem more acceptable in situations, but Grace has always just been like, “Nah, middle finger, this is how I feel” – and it’s worked for her. She’s been extremely successful and still is. I just feel like she’s a rule-breaker and I love the very obvious feminine and masculine energies that she has, because I have that as well. I always call myself an 80s tycoon man. Sometimes I go through phases where my hair is greased and slicked back and the only thing missing is a cigarette and a briefcase – it’s cool because I see that in her too. The music industry is a man’s industry, and I really feel like sometimes I have to walk into the room with the biggest dick.

I grew up in an area where there were many other African kids, so it was very easy for me to speak on what was happening at home, what I was interested in, what I was eating, and have people relate. But, I’ve always dreamt beyond my postcode; I’ve always thought internationally with everything.

Bree Runway

P: I love that! So, I moved to the UK when I was 9 and one of the hardest things that I found while growing up was marrying my Indian-ness with wanting to fit in and feel accepted in the UK. This definitely led me to reject my Indian heritage for a while. How did you navigate holding this intersectional space and bringing together your Ghanian and British identities?

B: I feel like it was easier for me because of the community I grew up in. I grew up in an area where there were many other African kids, so it was very easy for me to speak on what was happening at home, what I was interested in, what I was eating, and have people relate. But, I’ve always dreamt beyond my postcode; I’ve always thought internationally with everything. I just had to be like, “no, I get the limitations that we’re presented with in life, but I’m going to do it, just watch.” I’ve been constantly proving it since.

P: Do you think your multi-cultural identity influences your music and vibe?

B: Definitely. Even choreo-wise, if you break apart some of my choreography, so much is African. In Apeshit, for example, there’s a section in the later bridges where I use an African beat. I just always try to get it into everyone’s head that this is an African girl. 

P: Why is that so important to you?

B: I just want to show people that African girls can be rock stars, too. African girls can be pop stars too.

P: You’re definitely doing that! I know you’ve talked about being bullied growing up. I really relate a lot to some of the things you’ve talked about; I also had a very difficult childhood bullying-wise. How did you go about healing your inner child from the repercussions of these experiences? 

B: I think it reaches a point where it’s not even about turning to self-help books because you are trying to relate to an experience that is not yours – you really need to listen to your inner voice because it’s your best guide. The less that I was shouting over my intuition, the better I was at listening and knowing how to guide myself to a place of just being comfortable in myself – this big, loud, colourful, eccentric girl.

P: It’s fantastic how confident you are in yourself now. If you could say something now to little Bree, what would it be?

B: Oh my god, I would tell her so many things. The most important thing that I would say to her is, “there’s a thousand thems and only one of you for a reason. So, continue being you because being you is actually the power that you’re looking for.” That’s what I would tell her.

P: That’s beautiful. I know you speak a lot about how colourism has impacted you in your life and your experiences with skin lightening. I actually went to get a manicure in India once and they put bleach on my arms without even asking me – it’s wild how normalised it is! I often think of colourism as a way in which colonialism is still being carried out in 2021. Why do you think that, even today, society is enabling this mentality – in white Western countries, but possibly even more so in post-colonial countries?

B: I just think that it’s too far gone; it’s been too cemented in our brains, in TV roles, music videos, magazine covers. Things are changing, the wheel is turning slowly, and the mould is breaking – but it’s just been too heavily cemented.

P: I know you’re using your influence now to provide the opportunities for dark-skinned women, like the dancers in the ATM video, that they wouldn’t otherwise be receiving. Why is this so important to you?

B: It’s something I’ve always done, to be honest. I always just saw it as a natural thing that in Bree’s world, a dark-skinned girl is going to be front and centre, just as I am front and centre of the camera. I wish that it was just talent that was measured, but it’s not. So, in my world, I will ensure that if you’re working with me, you’re feeling like an absolute star. That’s all.

P: How did you personally break out of this structure and start to sit with and love your skin and beauty?

B: It was hard to shed that skin – 100% – but I feel like the more I started stepping out of myself and looking at myself, almost like an out of body experience, I started seeing myself as very special. I’m a very special person – my talent, my ideas, my mind. I look at myself as more than a skin tone as well, more than just a beautiful person. I look at the impact that I’m able to bring to the world, to the industry, how I’m able to make people feel, as opposed to some likes on Instagram. That is not the mark; the mark is how you make people feel – that’s what makes me feel more confident as a person. 

P: Speaking of society’s expectations on Black women, with Black women often being pigeonholed into certain stereotypes – either being desexualised and ‘Mammy-ed’ or being hypersexualised and fetishised – how do you navigate this while expressing sexual liberation and desire through your music and lyrics?

B: I don’t like to leave room to let people tell me who I am, that’s why I always tell you who I am through the music, through the fashion, through the music videos – I’m a dark-skinned girl that supports dark-skinned girls. I’m a dark-skinned girl who is not going to do what you say I should do, I’m going to do what I want to do – these are my rules. I always enforce it. I feel like the way I’ve just owned that is continuously rubbing it in people’s faces that “this is me”.

I’m a dark-skinned girl that supports dark-skinned girls. I’m a dark-skinned girl who is not going to do what you say I should do, I’m going to do what I want to do – these are my rules. I always enforce it.

Bree Runway

P: [laughs] That’s amazing! You’ve also spoken previously about the importance of strong female friendships in your life  We all know that society pits women against each other, and I think in a white-centric society, this is almost more heightened for Black and Brown women because on top of competing for the few spots for women, we’re also competing for the few spots for People of Colour. Of course, I know this is even more pronounced for Black women than for me, as an Indian femme person  Do you think this has impacted your friendships and relationships with women in your life?

B: You know what? I have let certain friends go in the past because of how they’ve made me feel – even lighter-skinned women that I’ve been friends with who didn’t like the attention I got in certain situations because they felt like they were supposed to be getting the attention. I’m not going to have society make me feel like this and a friend make me feel like this as well. So, I’ve definitely dropped friends out because of that – but this was years ago, I don’t really face that now.

P: Within this framework, how do you go about rejecting the competition and completely and genuinely supporting one another?

B: I see yesterday’s Bree as my only competition. I don’t look at other girls’ pages and think “I wish I had this.” Everyone brings their own thing to the industry; I’m just focused on making my thing as big as possible because I’m working with something amazing here.

P: I really admire that. Ok, so I’m fully obsessed with your music videos – wow! Honestly, the most exciting and visually stunning music videos that I’ve seen in such a long time. They’re so classic but you blend the iconic 00s looks with a futuristic vibe. Why is it so important to you to make aesthetically powerful and flamboyant videos?

B: I think music videos bring the song to life and help leave the true taste of the music in the viewer’s mouth. I’m always going to do something that stands out because I want you to press play again and go and tell your friends about it; I always want to win over the person that’s watching. I also think that’s what being a true pop star is – bringing iconic music videos out and really thinking about everything in them down to the styling, hair, colour palette, the type of camera we use, the techniques. I’m into all of that. I set lighting references that work best for dark skin because I want dark skin to look shiny and amazing, as it deserves to look on camera. The music video is where people get to see you bring the song to life – you have to do the song justice!

P: What about the 00s sounds and looks inspires you so much?

B: It was just very big – it was carefree, it was limitless, it was free. There were no rules and I feel like everyone was out to take a risk. It just seemed like a competition of who could be the most controversial, so we got the most ground-breaking shit. It was colourful and I was just glued to it. I was so impressed and so blown away, and it still stands the test of time. That’s definitely my main driving force – that era just makes me feel like I can’t afford to half-ass anything. My videos need to be watched in 10 years’ time and have people think, “Nah, this Bree woman!” Yeah, that’s how I want to make people feel.

P: The music videos for APESHIT and ATM are both absolutely incredible. I’d say the visuals for ATM are very burlesque and strip-club inspired. I don’t know if you’re aware, but FKA Twigs and Kehlani, amongst others, came under attack last year for using sex worker aesthetics in their work and profiting off it when sex work is still so stigmatised, and sex workers are very marginalised. How do you go about navigating these conversations with the topics and visuals included in your work?

B: That’s interesting; I actually did not know about that. I am aware of those kinds of things that can backfire on you and, I mean, someone could look at the video for ATM and say, “oh, that’s sex work aesthetics”, but I just wanted it to feel grand and have dark-skinned show-girl vibes. I’m very thorough and careful with those kinds of things because I’m not out to offend or profit off something that people are being bashed for; I don’t like that. I feel like people deserve to be shown love with whatever they do.

I see yesterday’s Bree as my only competition. I don’t look at other girls’ pages and think “I wish I had this.” Everyone brings their own thing to the industry; I’m just focused on making my thing as big as possible because I’m working with something amazing here.

Bree Runway

P: Yeah, for sure. It was amazing that Missy Elliott was featured in ATM. I know you’d almost predicted your collaboration with Missy Elliott well in advance?!

B: I did; I really did. It was crazy because of how our relationship evolved online. It started off with some people tweeting things like: “oh my God, I didn’t know Missy had a fine daughter” and then I was tagging her like, “Missy, do you see this?” and she replied, “yeah, I’m seeing it, keep shining” – I screenshotted it, sent it to my friend and said, “we’re going to make a song together this year.” Fast forward – I was about to sleep after Gucci came out when Missy’s team reached out to say that she wanted to work with me. I was like, “you’re joking!” I had this abandoned song that I didn’t know what to do with, called ATM, so I sent it to her to see if she was the missing piece – she was. It’s just weird and so cool. I always say things work out for my good – I’m a big believer in that – and they literally do.

P: Do you believe in the power of manifesting your life and future?

B: Absolutely, I’m a prayerful girl – I visualise things in my head so clearly in my head that I can feel and smell the air where I’m at. I take it seriously because I know how real it is. Visualise it, pray on it and meet it with your absolute best and hard work – you’re in for great things.

P: At what point were you manifesting where you are now and how has this led to today? 

B: I think I realised that you can really think things into existence during this time in my life when I wanted to move from children’s shoes to Christian Louboutin in Harrods. It’s so crazy because I started acting like a Louboutin girl; I started dressing better to work, wearing high heels, brushing my hair out, treating customers like Louboutin customers. I didn’t even qualify for the job, but clearly there was something about my energy when I walked into the place. I just realised in that moment that if you really act like what you want and place yourself in the position to receive what you’re asking for, you are going to get it.

P: I know you’ve got a new song in the works – I had a little listen to it! It’s so great. feel like you’re constantly dipping your toe into different genres and blending them together but you never disappoint. I’d love to hear about the inspiration behind this track from you – the beats and also the lyrics.

B: The inspiration behind this song was me just wanting to feel like the most popular version of myself this summer. I’d been working a lot and I needed something to press play on where I could just let my hair down and see myself driving in a drop-top in the summertime with my hair blowing around me. It’s so cool that this is coming out because it’s basically a continuation of the theme of my last mixtape, 2000AND4EVA. As soon as you press play, the beat is going to remind you of the peak of the blazing hot charts of the early 2000s – that’s something that I feel will connect very, very nicely with anyone that plays it.  They’re going to be like, “oh shit, I know this!” – so I’m really excited.

P: I can’t wait to listen to it all summer! It’s wild that you’ve not been able to do any live shows yet. What’re you most looking forward to about being on stage in front of a live audience and why?

B: I can’t wait to see people sing the lyrics back to me; I can’t wait to pull people up on stage and hug them. I can’t wait to see the queue outside the venue as I’m getting ready and I’m like, “Oh my God, all of this for me?” I can’t wait, I can’t wait!

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin (they/she) is an LGBTIQA+ community organiser and Trustee with the direct action group, Voices4 London, and on the Advisory Board for the social enterprise, Split Banana, who are helping redesign and deliver inclusive relationship and sex-ed.

Prishita’s words have been published in METAL, gal-dem, and Dazed, amongst others. They also recently featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a new documentary by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTIQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.

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