There’s no doubt Bree Runway is aware of people trying and failing to define her, but she’s not particularly interested in conforming and she certainly doesn’t view her versatility as a disadvantage. Rap Bree, Soul Bree and Punk-pop Bree coexist harmoniously to become her superpower. ‘I’m all of those things,’ she says, smiling over Zoom from her house in east London. ‘And being able to be all of those things is what I think makes a popstar a popstar,’ she explains.
Though it’s true that Runway is a relatively new addition to the mainstream, it’s already hard to imagine how much further the Ghanaian-British dynamo could ‘elevate the vision’, as she promises, excitedly. Last year she established herself as one of the most ambitious, imaginative artists recently to emerge from London’s music scene, equipped with elaborate, energy-filled visuals, continent-hopping collaborations, meticulous choreography and a debut mixtape, 2000AND4EVA, that go some way in answering the question, ‘Who exactly is Bree Runway?’ The reality is that Runway, born Brenda Wireko Mensah, is impossible to pin down, a rare find in an age of groupings, playlists and algorithms.
While so much of what the 28-year-old does is future-facing — the five-inch nails, the ice blue wigs, the sci-fi-infused art direction — this element of her image is bolstered by generations of pop stars gone by. Following in the footsteps of the MTV generation, she has been fed a steady diet of strong, female artists who recreate themselves again and again through their creative vision: Kelis, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Britney Spears and Madonna spring to mind. ‘From aunties showing up popping as hell at our hall parties to game-changing women in the industry, I think I just gravitate to women being themselves completely unapologetically,’ she says.
Those same boundary-pushing, chameleonic tendencies are the foundations of the artist she is today. From buttery, silken vocals on down-tempo tunes such as ‘All Night’, released earlier in her career, to her effortless flow on charismatic rap tracks such as ‘Damn Daniel’, she is the entire Nineties girl group in one neat package. Visually, she’s just as chameleonic: from leopard print one-pieces and diamond-encrusted leotards to triple-denim trappings, latex, leather, spandex. You name it, she’s worn it. And she’s pulled it off.
That transformative power is something that’s grabbed the attention of both fans and peers alike. Even if Runway’s name hasn’t reached your Spotify yet, she’s already your favourite artist’s favourite artist, shouted out by the likes of Cardi B, Kali Uchis, Doja Cat, Aminé, Kehlani and of course, her idol, Missy Elliott. At the age of 15 she sang in front of Michelle Obama at school and was anointed by the US First Lady on the spot. But it was arguably when she dropped the video for single ‘Apeshit’ in March last year that everything shifted.
‘Everyone kept saying, “Oh my God, I didn’t know Missy had a fine daughter,” and they kept mentioning her, so I thought, “Let me tag her and see if she’s actually seeing this…”’ Plot twist: she was. And when Elliot responded to her with kind words, Runway remembered texting a friend the following: ‘Screenshot this, me and her are gonna have a song together.’ Less than 10 months later, that prediction came true. In January, Runway dropped the unabashed sugar baby anthem ‘ATM’ featuring a verse from the rap video legend herself, which she can only manage to describe as ‘unreal’ before freaking out all over again.
Much of Runway’s journey is rooted in fervent self-belief and sky’s-the-limit thinking, topped off with an unshakeable work ethic — in her words, ‘hard work and faith hand in hand’. Even releasing ‘Apeshit’, the song she credits for changing so much, was not always a given: ‘I split up with management and then the pandemic happened so all the odds were against me from the beginning of the year. I had to kind of gather myself instantly.’ Pushing through by herself has proven fruitful. She has since gained widespread media coverage, overseen the congregation of her own online community — ‘they’re like an army now’ — and closed out last year in the longlist for BBC Sound of 2021. ‘It’s been really hard but rewarding at the same time,’ she says with a deep exhale.
Since the pandemic began, Runway has stood out for her creative innovation and DIY spirit. Painting a picture of her current Hackney surroundings, she explains how her home studio for recording most of the latest release consisted of vocals sung underneath her duvet for sound cancellation. While she is outgrowing her space — she jokes that when she wants to get into bed she has to ask permission from her Galliano pieces that are scattered over various surfaces — part of the reward, she says, comes in grafting to create something beautiful despite these obstacles. From her Instagram Live tour in which she hired two fans and a projector to ‘turn my living room into O2 Arena’, to the kaleidoscopic green screen visuals that set her apart from the onslaught of pandemic content, Runway is of the opinion that ‘you can create impact. You don’t need much, you just need yourself. You are completely enough.’
As with many formidable tales of triumph, struggle has been no stranger to Runway. For her to practise such radical joy and self-belief now meant unlearning and overcoming much of her past. It seems almost implausible that there was a time when she was too scared to show her face on camera. ‘I was so shy to be seen online that I’d always cover my face with my phone,’ she explains. ‘I wanted you to see me but I didn’t really want to be seen.’ The idea that Runway herself was ‘enough’ felt like fiction. ‘I was bullied so much growing up, I didn’t want to give anyone the chance to say anything about me.’
Growing up in Hackney with ‘the kind of insults that were being thrown around’ made self-love a challenge for Runway, who describes the area as very tough, though she says she is equally thankful for the tough skin it granted her. ‘It’s motivated me,’ she reflects. ‘The kinds of things I was exposed to didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth most of the time. So when I’d go to bed from a very young age, I’d try and visualise beyond my postcode. “Where does big Bree want to be when she grows up?’” She’s not sure how, but at some point she realised that to achieve her dreams she had to strip away that fear of being seen. ‘I feel like what you tell yourself after the words “I am…” is so important. I’m very careful with the words I use about myself.’
From then on, in everything she has done, Runway has been intentional in using her platform and influence to centre dark-skinned Black women like herself, and undo the work society has done in routinely shrinking and erasing them. ‘I know what it’s like to be counted out,’ she shrugs. From her videos to her artworks, every aspect of her campaigns is a testament to that philosophy. The cover of her 2019 album, Be Runway, touched viscerally on the effects of colourism and racism on both her and the wider Black community. It was one of the first times she addressed issues she faced personally, such as the use of bleaching creams to lighten her skin when she was nine. Though she admits it felt terrifying to be vulnerable being able to start a conversation made it worth it. ‘I want to open up so that [people] know that you can also repair yourself from anything that you’ve been through.’
The world of her music and videos has continued to provide a safe space for the full breadth of Black women to feel seen, heard and held. She soberly recounts how at one of her recent video rehearsals, she found dancers in tears at merely being given the opportunity to shine, worn out from years in a profession where they’re too often sent to the back of the room or worse, can’t find work despite their talent. Runway’s at her most serious and impassioned when she emphasises how, from designing and sourcing their costumes to literally centring them on camera, she wants to cultivate new futures for dark-skinned Black women. ‘I never want the girls I work with to feel like back-up,’ she tells me, shaking her head slowly. ‘The world doesn’t make us feel like stars all the time, so in my world, you’re gonna look like a star and feel incredible.’
That very same drive is one of the reasons Runway often uses the term ‘destructive’ when asked to define her genre-straddling catalogue. ‘We’re destroying the things that society says dark-skinned girls can and can’t do.’ She wearily reels off the ways in which dark-skinned women are policed in daily life, from their hair colour to their make-up. ‘It’s always what we’re not supposed to…’ For teenage Runway, this extended to what music she should listen to or how beautiful she was permitted to feel by others. And while that culture only inspired her to lean further into risk, it wasn’t always easy for her mother to get on board. ‘One thing that the struggle came from [is that] my mum is a really safe person. She’s an African woman, she automatically gravitates to security,’ she explains. ‘So as well as showing and proving in the industry that I’m a dark-skinned girl who deserves a spot, I’m also showing and proving at home that, although I quit my job and I’m flying to Berlin and I’ve got green hair and my tongue is pierced, it’s gonna work out.
‘With my existence and with my music I’m saying, even though we’re not supposed to, here I am doing it and doing it well. I want people to feel like when they listen to me, they can forget all the rules.’
So how does someone with such a renegade ethos fare in the world of major record labels? Signed to Virgin EMI and with her sights set on global stardom, has she found herself having to loosen her reins or temper her vision at any stage? ‘I set the tone from very, very early. As soon as I got signed within 14 working days I made a whole presentation: this is who Bree Runway is, this is where she wants to take it, this is her vision — can you get on board and amplify this?’ She tells me proudly how she took her laptop into her label’s office, hair slicked back in a rainbow wig, draped in an Eighties shoulder-padded, pinstripe suit (‘like the tycoon that I am’) fortified with a pair of Runway-branded stripper heels, and delivered her message clearly, apparently to the relief of the execs in the room. The whole affair was polished off with some intro music and an old-school pointing stick, she cackles. ‘I gotta bring a bit of draaama, you know!’
It’s a scene more at home in a movie script than in real life, not unlike a lot of other great Runway moments that have unfurled so far: from her Michelle Obama teenage prophecy to full-circle encounters with her idols. Which begs the question Runway herself undoubtedly has the answer to: is the music industry finally ready for Bree Runway? In one short, crystal clear sentence punctuated with a cartoonishly maniacal laugh that bursts out of both of us, she looks directly into her laptop camera, smiles sweetly and declares: ‘Absolutely freakin’ not!’
Styled by Jessica Skeete-Cross. Hair by Seraiah Artistry. Make-up by Bernicia Boateng. With special thanks to Chelsea Physic Garden (chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk)