Hackney-born pop star Bree Runway may be larger than life on stage but behind the scenes she's learning that there's "strength in vulnerability."
With her wardrobe full of spikes, buckles and platform heels, singer and rapper Bree Runway is a born cover girl. During her photoshoot for HUNGER, she’s a whirlwind of energy – stretching out her legs like she’s in the middle of a game of Twister and doing everything to get the shot. In conversation she keeps that same, larger-than-life energy, dropping into the Zoom chat with a broad smile and a laugh that warms up the room, even across a shaky wifi connection. She’s less guarded than on set, ditching the model behaviour for something more candid as she flits through anecdotes of an ill-fated girl band she was once part of (her mum made all the outfits, like Tina Knowles used to for Destiny’s Child) and growing up among a friendship group obsessed with tooth gems, baby hairs and “freestyling down the stairs in the block”.
Speaking away from cameras and stacked expectations, the differences between Bree the artist and Bree the young woman from Hackney quickly become clear. With her music alter ego, Bree can be as big, brash and IDGAF as she pleases, raising a middle finger to all the naysayers who would rather she dim her shine to keep them comfortable and complacent. But standing behind that invincible icon in the making is a young woman who has moments of insecurity and self-doubt just like anybody else. The journey up until now has, however, been longer and rockier than most.
Enduring society’s misogynoir and colourism, she was just nine years old when unrelenting bullying from her peers drove her to skin-lightening creams – and she’s dealing with the damage that did to her face to this day. By her own account, it took Bree years to even feel comfortable showing her face on camera, never mind strutting her stuff on stage. With darker skin tones still deeply disadvantaged in our society and underrepresented in the media, the self-love that pours out of Bree’s music feels like a radical act. And while she might not lay bare her struggles in the songs, which build her up instead of probing her foundations, her subversive visuals tell a different story. Whether it’s workplace racism in the video for the single “Big Racks”, or her personal history of skin bleaching represented by her half-white, half-Black profile on the cover for the EP Be Runway, the full Bree Runway picture is unabashedly political. Not shying away from difficult conversations or sugarcoating her reality, she’s boldly living her truth. Let’s just hope more like her are able to follow in the trail that she’s blazing.
What’s your relationship with the internet like? I know that’s where your songs first took off, but then there are the trolls…
The internet is really, really weird. I love it for posting my images and videos and connecting with the fans that love them and love me. I find so much joy in that, because I feel like we have our own family online now. But when you do see an anonymous account with zero followers spewing hate… Sometimes I want to argue with them but if someone drunk screamed “You need to tone it down!” at you on the street, would you stop and argue with them? If you do have energy to reply to somebody, reply to somebody that’s showing love. Also, the moment I bring attention to the trolls, the fans that love me will fight them the whole way!
It sounds like you have a tight relationship with your fans. Do you see yourself as a role model for them? I know you’ve used your platform to talk about issues like workplace racism and sexual harassment.
I’ve heard that I’m a role model but I don’t want to give myself that title… I was going to say “because I’m not perfect”, but no one’s perfect. I do think it’s important to use your platform to highlight things that matter. It can’t all be bubble pop candy, because we don’t live in a bubble pop candy world.
You’ve also been really outspoken about your own experience with colourism. Why did you want to be so candid about the struggles you’ve faced?
I want people to understand that, even though I’m up here with nice things, I have been through so much to get to the place where I even feel confident enough to turn my face to a camera to sing to you guys, you know? When I talk about the point where I hated my skin and wanted to change it, my inbox is always flooded with “Oh my God, I thought it was just me.” But no, I’ve been through that, too, and I want to be an example to people that you can come through these things. You can be abused and your life can turn around and be amazing, that doesn’t have to be a shackle. You can overcome so many things.
It’s so hard to know what someone has been through when you’re looking from the outside. What’s the biggest misconception that people have about you?
Oh, that I’m an arrogant, cocky, insecure freak biatch. When people see my art and how strong I look in pictures, they always assume that I’m going to walk in, nose up like I know everything, but I’m the biggest goofball ever. I don’t think that translates in pictures or videos, but if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’m just a kid.
You seem so down to earth, so I’m curious, how do you navigate your personal relationships as your platform grows? Is it hard to tell who’s genuine and who’s not?
I’ve got the same group of people that I’ve always had with me from before, but in life, you’re always going to meet new people. One thing I’m blessed with is extremely high spiritual discernment. I know when someone’s energy is a bit off or they want to be around me for a certain reason. I can kind of scope out who’s for me and who’s against me. With men… it’s just weird with men. Most men are like, “Oh, you’re famous, it’s really weird,” or, “I’ve never dealt with someone like you before.” I’m actually a very normal person. I always present the most normal version of myself, but sometimes even that’s quite intimidating for some people. I need to find someone who strikes the right balance of understanding what I do and being excited by it and understanding that I’m just a regular person as well.
So it’s important to put yourself first, right? I’m loving that so much of your work recently has been coming from a place of self-acceptance and knowing your worth. What has the journey towards getting to that place been like?
I’ve been tucking into that stuff more because I’ve started therapy in the past year and it’s helped me realise that it’s OK to be vulnerable. It doesn’t make you weak. My issue is that I always want to protect myself and how I look, but there is strength in vulnerability. Putting moments in your art that connect with something that has made you feel low at some point, there’s nothing wrong with that. It just makes it more human, so when someone presses play, they can relate or they’re inspired or they want to elevate. It gives them something, you know? But therapy’s definitely the reason why I’m more gushy. I am naturally anyway, I’m a Scorpio.
Has looking after that emotional side made you a better artist?
One hundred per cent. Even at this place that I’ve reached now, I sometimes ask myself, “Are you taking care of just Bree Runway’s shit or are you taking care of the human side of you as well?” I do think it’s important to take a step back and celebrate yourself and acknowledge how far you’ve come. Just so everything feels real and you’re not a machine that’s go, go, go all the time. You need to take care of your emotional and spiritual side, it just makes you a better everything overall.
So is there much of a separation between you as a person, as Bree, and your Bree Runway artist persona?
My artist persona is definitely a superhero. The blood circulation to her feet could stop at a shoot but she’d just keep going, going, going. But the non-artist side of me, she feels everything and sometimes just wallows and throws herself pity parties. And if she’s watching the artist side of herself, she’s never like, “Wow” – she’s hard on herself. But the artist side of me, she knows she’s That Bitch.
I mean, she is That Bitch. Why do you think you’re still so hard on yourself?
You know what? I strive for perfection too much. I’m so hard on myself because I know how far I’ve come and how great I can be. Every time I do something it needs to be tens across the board. I don’t even like to give myself that room for mediocrity, ever.
It sounds like you’ve been learning a lot about yourself recently. What’s your outlook for getting through the rest of 2020?
That I’m not going to stop until I get to the top, and when I get there I’m not going to stop!
The DIY Issue is out now, get your own copy here. Bree Runway’s debut mixtape, 2000and4Eva, is out now.
12 November 2020