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Karis Pierre

‘I want them front and centre with me’: Bree Runway is making space for Black girls to shine

Leading our ones to watch 2021, we caught up with the future of music aka Bree Runway. She talks influences, high standards and making room for dark-skinned Black girls.

28 Jan 2021

Bree Runway is clearly an artist that likes to remain on the go. Speaking over Zoom, she’s been itching to flee the quarantine-induced boredom many of us will be stuck in, having spent much of her time “staring into the ceiling and sulking” faced with the repetition of yet another lockdown. Still, Bree’s optimistic, a temperament partially induced by throwing herself into writing new music and reflecting on the highs won in the face of the hellish year gone by. “The fact that I was able to get through 2020 and still achieve so much,” she offers in pointed reflection. “Yeah, I’m hopeful.”

She’s not lying. 2020 saw the release of Bree’s debut mixtape, 2000AND4EVA, despite the challenges of quarantine, heralding a string of celebrated releases and music videos. Whilst on our call, she’s basking in the excitement of the project’s latest drop ‘ATM’, a slick, party-ready electronic-leaning track which sees her link up with not-so-unfamiliar face Missy Elliott. Typical of an artist prime for the internet age, the collab all started with a chance interaction on Twitter. “I’d just dropped ‘Apeshit’ and everyone was tagging Missy, so I tweeted her. I’d thought she was just gonna ignore it,” she recalls. “But she responded! And I told my team ‘this interaction is for a reason, just watch.’”

The end creation possesses an energy many of us could use during these quiet times. Bree and Missy’s verses detail their matched prowess in tapping the funds of mesmerised men, rapped over buzzing synths and pulsating bass. The video is equally captivating, with Bree centered in a quartet of lithely moving Black starlets, all frocked in diamond body garments and what appears to be copious amounts of body shimmer. For any other artist it might seem OTT, but then again, it’s hard to pinpoint any matching contemporaries – to quote her words, “No one can do Bree like Bree.”

“No one can do Bree like Bree”

Real name Brenda Mensah, the artist already has three EPs under her belt, in addition to her newest mixtape. Each of these releases is perfect to soundtrack dreams of post-lockdown nights on dancefloors, and conjures up visions of gloss, fur, leather and towering stiletto heels. Her sound is, for want of a better word, dynamic: it’s all big vocals, pop-R&B hybrid song structure, rap verses, and just about any other genre she decides to take a stab at. “I like to leave a taste in your mouth,” she states.

With her endless stream of music styles, dancing between electric guitar on songs like ‘Apeshit’ and 80s synths on others like ‘Damn Daniel,’ Bree is hard to pin down, but early 2000s imagery continually appears in her artistry. As creative director of all her visuals, her videos hark back to the era where budgets were big, dance sequences imperative and ideas even larger. “I’m inspired heavily by the era where the standard was the standard, like I aim to mirror that,” she says. “I don’t believe in creating something mediocre, so I would never do anything half-hearted. I want my feet to bleed, I want to get the move, I want to get the shot. I shoot for like 19 hours when it’s a music video day.”

“I don’t believe in creating something mediocre”

Her origins line the pathway that’s made her who she is sonically. Bree was raised in Hackney, the child of two Ghanaian parents each with a deep love of music. Her father was a drummer well-versed in Ghanaian highlife acts like the City Boys Band, bestowing knowledge of drum patterns and West African sounds in her childhood. Her mother tag-teamed in cultivating her musical palate via a diet of songs played off Magic FM, giving her a love for 80s power ballads by Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and other artists usually found in the playlists of those decades her senior. Combined with early 2000s pop music caught on MTV Rotation, these were all sounds Bree would learn to fuse with expertise. “When I first started out, I would always think about how I can combine heavy instrumentation but make it really 80s inspired,” she says. “But even with all the influences I have, if I were to break down all my songs to you and pinpoint the inspirations, you’d realise it’s also from my parents.”

Between tapping out instrumentals on Logic and old school beatmaking websites, teaching herself to record and mix independently alongside studying music tech in school, in her mid-twenties Bree was struck with a strong desire to take things seriously. “My mum wanted me to do economics, like something I wasn’t interested in,” she says. Reassuring her parents about finding a stable career in music required a lot of convincing. “It took a while for [my parents] to trust in my career. Those conversations were ugly most times, because my mum is very afraid of me not being stable or having the financial means to live how I want to live. But her thing is safety, and I’m not a ‘safe’ person.”

Said break-out from safety came in 2017. Tired of spending time away from music for work that wasn’t her passion, she quit her job as a shop floor assistant at Christian Louboutin and hopped on a plane to Berlin two days later to work on her artistry. “I said, look, I don’t know how I’m going to make money,” she recalls. “But I do know I need to focus on music.” It was there she met with producers like Kilian & Jo, staying up till four in the morning to toy with demos and mess around with different styles. It’s a process she credits in birthing the Bree Runway sound. “I really have to thank my time in Berlin for making my sound what it is now, because it came from fun.”

Despite being versed in multiple genres, Bree’s been committed to making a space to be seen as an artist skilled in pop music. It’s a label rarely afforded to Black artists who venture out into alternative music styles, instead usually met with the racial pigeonholing of being categorised as R&B. It’s an issue she’s talked about with gal-dem before and speaks to her positioning as an artist of much wider impact than her music alone. “People just need to label by the music and not the skin colour,” she says. For many of her fans, it’s not lost on them that Bree is a dark-skinned woman doing it all against the backdrop of an industry that is notoriously colourist, and someone repeatedly vocal about the issues women of her complexion face both inside the industry and in everyday life. I point to an interaction she detailed on Twitter where she recounted being chastised for primarily platforming fellow dark-skinned women in her videos. “I just thought it was such a funny conversation. The person said to me, ‘why don’t I branch out and use white girls and light-skinned girls as well,’” she says. “I love all girls, but where dark-skinned girls don’t get prioritised, I want to prioritise them in my space.”

“I know what it’s like to be counted out as a darkskin girl”

Bree has spoken candidly before about her journey to appreciate her skin colour, discussing experiences with skin bleaching and colourism in op-eds and in her music. It’s a candour that adds to the multiple reasons her fans love and respect her. Not only is she a talented artist deeply committed to her craft, she stands out in the industry as a proud representation of a Black girl who dared to disregard the barriers of genre and type casting, overcoming the malice of colourism to demand a place to entertain audiences who would have little choice but to notice her unbridled talent. And, in the process, she’s making sure other Black girls get their chance to shine too. “When I walked into the ‘ATM’ rehearsals my featured dancers were all in tears, and I didn’t understand why,” she shares. “And they said ‘Bree, we are always thrown at the back’.

“I cried too, because I know what it’s like to be counted out as a darkskin girl. So here, they are going to have an outfit that looks like mine. They’re going to look like a star just like me. And I want them front and centre with me.”

Bree Runway heads up gal-dem’s ones to watch 2021. You can read the full list here.