Class of 2021: Bree Runway

Interview Class of 2021: Bree Runway

Creative mastermind, friend of Missy Elliott and business mogul in the making: Project Runway is already well underway, and in 2021, Bree’s going in all guns blazing.

Bree Runway manifested her collaboration with Missy Elliott months before it actually happened. “My whole life is not a surprise to me,” she says nonchalantly, chewing on Tangfastics at a photo studio in Hackney. “Even the Missy thing. There’s a text from March 2020 where I told someone, ‘Just watch’. They sent me a screenshot of it recently, like, ‘You literally said that you and Missy would collab!’.”

Bree’s high-glamour Class Of 2021 photo shoot has just wrapped and – as in the manner she arrived – the pop star is back in her own personalised hooded dressing gown, name emblazoned on the back like a tiny, twerking prizefighter. A few weeks ago, she released latest mixtape ‘2000AND4EVA’, a genre-bending riot of a pop record that set out her stall as a megastar of the future. Oh, and it has THAT Missy Elliott track on it, too.

“When I got her verse for ‘ATM’, I literally almost threw my laptop on the floor, like tears just started streaming out my eyes,” Bree recalls, genuinely excited now. “I was like, ‘It’s Missy Elliott. What?! This is nuts. This is a legend.’ My mum was just staring at me with her mouth open. It still feels so weird that I have a song with Missy Elliott!”

For the rapper, there is no higher co-sign. As the title of her mixtape would suggest, the beginnings of Bree Runway The Pop Star began in the early noughties when her eight-year-old self – known then as Brenda Wireko Mensah – spent her days glued to MTV, waiting to see what “icons” like Missy and Madonna would do next. “That era of music really defined what a pop star is,” she explains. “They were just loud and proud and so punk, in a way. Artists were constantly reinventing themselves, the sound was always fresh. You never knew what to expect from them.”

That same thrilling unpredictability is felt in Bree’s music and aesthetic today. Her mixtape flits from thrashing nu-metal guitars on ‘Little Nokia’ to the reggae beats of ‘Rolls Royce’, all the while loaded with an energy and polish that’s fast becoming synonymous with her output.

A restless creative, while most of the world was halted this spring, a little thing like a global pandemic wasn’t going to stop Project Runway in its tracks. Summer bop ‘Damn Daniel’, with its “unapologetic Black girl magic” and Fresh Prince-inspired video, was recorded entirely from the confines of Bree’s Hackney bedroom during those long, locked-down days - not that you’d know from its multiple outfit changes, slick neon visuals and guest spot from Georgia’s Yung Baby Tate.

“That video was my highlight of 2020,” she says. “I didn’t think I would be able to pull something together like that in lockdown, and for it to turn out how it turned out? I’m so proud. That really marks strength in such a tough year.”

Class of 2021: Bree Runway Class of 2021: Bree Runway

“I got to a place where I just decided: nah, I think it’s time I started stepping into my uniqueness.”

Growing up, Bree’s influences were as diverse as her sound suggests. Obsessing over everyone from emo rockers The Used (“I definitely found my crew in that scene”) to Lady Gaga, she even took to wearing a singular leather glove and carrying around a teacup in homage to Miss Germanotta. “I took it on the train,” she notes of the latter. “That’s 100% true.”

A melting pot of different styles and ideas, Bree’s fresh approach to pop is breathing new life into the UK music scene. Across the pond, she cites the likes of Lil Nas X, Lizzo and Doja Cat as changing what it looks and sounds like to be a pop star. But over here, she’s carving her own path. “I feel like, in the UK, people often bash what they don’t understand rather than opening themselves up to something different,” she reckons as to why our pop stars all seem to fit a certain mould. “And not to sound mean, but I can see that sheep culture thing here,” she continues. “Like, ‘Let’s only hype up what everyone else is hyping up’, rather than stepping out of line and hyping something else that’s a bit different. But it doesn’t really bother me honestly, because I’m not a sheep, so whatever.”

Bree’s individuality is her superpower, but she didn’t always see it that way. As a child growing up in East London, she was badly bullied, with colourist remarks prompting her to bleach her skin in the hope she’d be accepted into the fold at school. But despite a difficult childhood and an emotionally tough year (Bree lost pregnant friend, YouTuber Nicole Thea, this summer; a track on the mixtape is dedicated to her), Bree radiates positivity and confidence, no signs of past or recent trauma weighing her down. In a year packed with so much negativity, we could all use a little schooling on how to lift the fog.

“There are two things you need to make use of: awareness and choice,” she says more convincingly than any £70-an-hour therapist. “You need to be aware of what makes you feel lesser than you are. And you also have to realise you have the choice, like, what do you want to do with this feeling? Do you just let it weigh you down and waste your life?

“I got to a place where I just decided: nah, I think it’s time I started stepping into my uniqueness.”

Class of 2021: Bree Runway Class of 2021: Bree Runway

“A pop star needs to be a chameleon. A pop star needs to be a fashion icon. And a pop star needs to be any genre they want to be at any time.”

However, as well as investing in herself, it’s Bree’s prioritisation of solid female friendships that has helped her grow into the self-assured artist she is today. Her best friend is Victoria’s Secret model Leomie Anderson who, after years of bullying, helped Bree see herself as beautiful and embrace her dark skin. The pair met at college and are tight to this day. “I’m such a girls’ girl. I just love being close to great girls where we lift each other up, we support each other’s ventures. It’s more than just looking pretty in pictures – you can genuinely be each other’s backbones. That’s very, very, very very important to me,” she stresses.

And it shows. For ‘2000AND4EVA’, Bree amassed a small crew of exciting female artists to jump on her songs (Rico Nasty and Maliibu Miitch, alongside Tate and Missy) - women who celebrate their differences and won’t be defined by industry standards.

“When you’re stepping out into music, you can think, ‘I better do what people would like and I better do what’s popular’,” she says of her earlier, R&B-focused sound. “But again, the choice thing: if it doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t feel completely natural to you, then don’t do it. I’m so much more than what I was doing when I first started. The amount of people that listen to me, the different countries, the amount of fan accounts... The conversations are different, the opportunities are different, everything is different. That saying is true: when you work hard for a year, things can really really change.”

Being a pop star in 2021 is harder than it was twenty years ago. In the early noughties, Lady Gaga could control the image she projected to the world, not setting foot outside without an encasing of bubble wrap, a dress made of flesh or, at the very least, a really, really uncomfortable pair of shoes. It all helped build the cult of Gaga. But in an always-on social media age where everyone, famous or not, is expected to share constantly, is that level of stardom still achievable?

“There’s a Bree Runway gloss, and I love my stuff looking star-studded, but sometimes I don’t mind breaking out of character and showing people how silly I am or how funny in a very non-corny way, because I actually am really funny, aren’t I?”

Oh. We’re supposed to answer. “Yes, yes. You’re really funny, yes.” It’s the only hint we’ve had all day that Bree needs any kind of validation. We’re kind of flattered.

Watching her glide through today’s photoshoot, directing the photographer, stylist and make-up artist, it’s obvious we’re seeing a real visionary at work - someone whose career is going to twist and turn in lots of exciting, unforeseen ways. With artists like Rihanna and Madonna building business empires alongside their musical output, is Runway Enterprises something we can expect in future?

“Oh definitely,” she confirms. “Just like I said about me being more than one genre, there’s definitely more to me as a woman as a whole. I’m into fashion, I’m into tech, I’m into cars. There’s so much more that lies ahead. I’d love to do a collaboration with Lamborghini - that would be sick.

“A pop star needs to be a chameleon,” she continues. “Your ability to switch and adapt needs to be on 10. A pop star needs to be a fashion icon. And a pop star needs to be any genre they want to be at any time.”

With so much achieved in this, the most unconventional of times, it’s undeniable that 2021 is going to be a behemoth of a year for Bree. She’s keeping tight-lipped about what’s next, although we’re sure it’s already mapped out on a vision board somewhere.

“What’s coming is that Bree Runway is going to change the game,” she says, with a glint in her eye.

We’ll take two ringside seats.

Tags: Bree Runway, Class of 2021, Class of…, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the December 2020 / January 2021 issue of DIY, out now.

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