Bree Runway’s mum might just be the unspoken hero of 2020. Though she wasn’t best pleased when her teenage daughter told her she was going to be a popstar – (“Actually, she said to me, if you don’t go to University or any kind of school, I’m going to kick you out in the house,” remembers Bree) – she’s now Bree’s biggest fan, crying tears of joy when Bree livestreamed an arena-worthy solo lockdown gig complete with wind machines and piped-in crowd noise, not to mention her occasional wardrobe mistress.
The pair still live together at home in Hackney – alongside Bree’s YouTuber younger brother – and Bree’s Shania Twain-style leopard print onesie in the video for her punchy lockdown single ‘Damn Daniel’ was one of her mother’s creations, with a little bit of help from a next door neighbour. “They had to quarantine throw the fabrics to each other,” laughs Bree over Zoom.
When the knockout outfit was ready, it was time to shoot the day-glo Salt’n’Pepa retro greenscreen promo, with mum now taking on the role of assistant as Bree filmed her half before handing over to collaborator Yung Baby Tate, the up-and-coming hip pop star signed to Issa Rae’s Raedio label and whose music can be heard on the soundtrack Rae’s brilliant ‘Insecure’. “Mum assisted me on the wig changes, she was saying ‘I don’t think you should wear that, I think you should wear that’,” says Bree, revealing that the glamorous location for the nine hour shoot was in fact their living room.
A fun, fast-paced chiptune smasher, ‘Damn Daniel’ is Bree’s take on a Fresh Prince style 1990s sitcom theme tune, complete with an outrageously hook-y chorus and guest spot from Tate, who dialled in from Atlanta for her turn as the super sassy Felicia. “I was actually gonna play the two characters myself,” explains Bree. “But then I thought you know what, it actually would be interesting with someone on it, and I was like, ‘this needs someone animated who’s got character, who’s got loads of personality.’ And it’s Tate.” The pair still haven’t met in real life. “But we text all the time, we show each other so much love. As soon as this quarantine is done, I’m going straight to America,” confirms Bree.
Not long after it was finished, the ‘Damn Daniel’ video was added to MTV Base, the highest of honours for Bree, who grew up on the hip hop and R&B-centric channel, which introduced her to the artists who’d go on to influence on her own high-energy sound and eye-catching visuals. “Britney Spears, Madonna, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim,” she says, reeling off a star-spangled list. If it wasn’t for the effect that those names had on her, Bree is the first to admit that she might now be a very different artist indeed. “I might be scared to even pursue the kind of artistry I wanted to pursue because mine is edgy, it’s different, it’s out there,” she says. “But seeing that growing up has given me the skills, the bravery, the confidence to pursue what I do.”
It’s not just iconic pop divas who’ve fed into Bree’s outlandish look and sound. “I went through a super e-girl phase where I used to listen to The Used and Kiss and System of A Down,” she says, revealing the existence of a metal track on her forthcoming EP. “It’s very grunge-y, rock-y, hardcore song,” she explains. “And it’s all about a drug dealer that I dated.” On the flipside, there’s also a powerful yee-haw energy present in last year’s seductive ‘All Night’. “I wrote that song with a cowboy hat on!” she giggles, before singing the praises of Dolly Parton.
It’s hard to talk about Bree Runway without mentioning the time she sang for Michelle Obama. Which is fair enough really, because it’s not every day that the former FLOTUS pops into your school assembly and tells you you’ve got an incredible voice. “She’s like a tall superhero,” remembers Bree, a decade on. Always confident in her art, it was the final boost that Bree needed to commit to her dream of becoming an artist. Since then failure hasn’t been an option – and neither has working on anyone else’s terms but her own.
Her focus has been evident since she was a little kid, when she’d put on talent shows for her aunties and uncles with her cousins. “I used to be super into organising them and getting the set times right,” she says. That need for creative control is still the case today, even if her platform is a little bigger. “That’s how I’ve been my whole career, before I had a team to help me magnify everything. But it’s always been me the head of everything; the head of the sound, the head of the writing, making sure the production is right, making sure that the wig is done. I’m definitely a control freak, 100%. I’m super involved in everything.”
Though lockdown might have put a dampener on her plans to go to the US and meet collaborators and work on new music, time at home hasn’t been wasted. Bree has written before about her experiences with colourism at a young age, and she’s spent the past few months using social media to amplify the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for justice for Breonna Taylor and revealing how her own experiences have chimed with that of X Factor contestant Misha B, who in a powerful social media post opened up about how the show’s racist agenda had a negative impact on her mental health.
“The one thing I straight away connected with is the pain in her eyes, there’s nothing a fellow Black girl can relate to more than regret from suppressing feelings from the experiences she discussed,” says Bree. “I have letters from 2017 that I wrote to myself and it delves deep into moments where I’ve faced certain issues because of my race and how mad I am at myself for not dealing with the person and incidents how they should have been dealt with. I’m disappointed in myself for not speaking up sooner, just how she was, but her Instagram Live inspired me to be more honest when approaching these types of issues. Why should I be afraid?”
It’s a message Bree vows to continue to push through her art. “I’ve been speaking about these issues before the hashtag. All the underlying messages in my previous videos have touched on issues with race, so going forward Bree will be doing Bree and continuing to shed light on things that have always mattered to her,” she states. “My next move is me honestly celebrating myself, and how much of an excellent, intelligent and amazing young Black woman I am and I hope Black women listening and watching my next release will feel the same.”
Bree’s latest single, ‘Gucci’ ft. Malibu Mitch is out now.