“This morning, I had a little cry,” Bree Runway tells me. “I’m someone that is very spiritual. I pray a lot. And I cried because I feel like this new phase that’s coming is so different from everything that I’ve asked for up to now. It’s a different level of success. I was looking around thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna have to leave here soon,’ and just started crying.”
It’s no wonder the singer and rapper from Hackney feels discombobulated. The way things work in music this year, she has watched her dreams becoming reality having barely stepped out of her childhood bedroom. That’s where she is when she talks to me: her “bedroom-slash-studio-slash-closet-slash-gym-slash yoga room”, as she calls it, with images of skyscrapers on the walls, a large framed picture of the manga-inspired artwork for her April single, Damn Daniel, and numerous bags and dresses hanging up, including one Union Jack minidress somewhat like Geri Halliwell’s.
“That’s my famous ‘Rihanna loves me’ dress!” she explains. In 2017 she tagged along to a Fenty Beauty launch party with her college friend, the model Leomie Anderson, and met the Barbadian superstar. “She was like, ‘Excuse me, your hair, your outfit – everything is lit!’ I didn’t even say anything. I was just like…” and she mimes a jaw dropping.
The Clapton home she shares with her mother, a health visitor, and younger brother, is also where she filmed the video for a 2019 single, Big Racks, and performed in a recent Instagram Live concert to substitute for the real gigs she should have been doing. For that she cleared the front room, projected videos onto the white wall behind her, and brought in two fans – the blowy kind – from HSS Tool Hire to keep her long red hair in constant motion.
“I created an O2 Arena in my living room,” she says. “It was really stressful because I wanted to get the sound right so bad. I set my mum up with an Instagram account so I could rehearse and she could watch it on her phone. She was upstairs shouting: ‘Turn the fans down!’”
Of course she would rather be building her buzz with real-life performances, but she won’t tone herself down for a pandemic. “No matter what’s thrown at me, I’m gonna make it pretty. With the brain that I have, and the creativity that lives in me, I’m gonna put it in some hoop earrings, put some lipgloss on it and make it gorgeous.”
Now another dream is coming true remotely. In March, she released her single Apeshit. Its squelchy analogue synths, old school beats and excessive use of fish-eye lens in the video prompted the majority of internet commenters to note similarities with Virginia hip hop icon Missy Elliott. Once alerted to the existence of her young British doppelganger, Elliott posted a fire emoji on Runway’s Instagram page, then tweeted: “Yes I’m seeing it! Lol keep shining mama.” Now, Runway has a new EP titled 2000AND4EVA, the crowning glory of which is ATM, a fiery duet with Missy herself.
“I’m not gonna lie to you David, I feel like this song is gonna chart. I can feel it in my left boobie. This one,” she indicates, in case it wasn’t clear.
And the funny thing is, as she tells it, it was Missy’s people who pursued her, not the other way around. She acts out the moment she got the call, holding a pretend phone up to one of her enormous earrings and doing both parts of the conversation with her record company. “What? She came for me? ‘Yeah, they want to do a record!’ I couldn’t believe it. Because legends like that, you have to chase them and beg them and I’m not a pushy person who likes to force relationships. I don’t know when she’s worked with a developing artist before. It’s clear she sees something in me.”
She’s not the only one. At her girls’ school, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson near King’s Cross, Runway (then known as Brenda Mensah) was picked to sing the lead in a gospel choir in front of Michelle Obama, then the First Lady, who was in town for a G20 summit. Obama gave her a high-five on stage and told her: “You are fabulous, girl!” Later that day, Runway was in McDonald’s with her friends and saw herself on the news.
“Singing that song changed my life,” she says. “It was this upbeat gospel song, very empowering. The lead line was something like: ‘Whatever it takes, I’m going all the way.’” It boosted her self-confidence when much of the rest of her school experience was doing the opposite. She was a victim of colourism, bullied for having darker skin than some other black girls. At one point she damaged her skin by trying to bleach it with skin-lightening creams.
“The leader of the bullies, now I think back, just wanted what I had. She wanted that talent. Sometimes when people see a light that shines, and they don’t feel like they have that light within them, they will go out of their way to try to dim yours. You need to be strong enough to understand that it’s not anything to do with you. It’s everything to do with them,” she says. “I never felt comfortable being the centre of attention, because of how I was made to feel then. But it’s a flower that I’ve watered. Now, this is actually me.”
She references some of this in her songs and videos, notably the clip for Big Racks, in which she covers her face in pale sticking plasters and then puts a bag over her head in a bid to gain approval from a white manager type. But there’s no sense that she’s a wallflower these days. In the video for the rocky, menacing Little Nokia, she’s hanging upside down in a car mechanic’s workshop with a punk mohican. For her single Gucci, she strikes the famous leg-behind-the-head pose of another obvious influence, Grace Jones. As we wrap up our conversation, she says that her next meeting is about the size of the diamond droplets on a headpiece she’s going to wear in her next video.
So even if she’s feeling daunted today by a potential move from her long-term home, there’s no question that Runway will do anything but take off. She signed her record deal in the summer of 2018, but knew her destiny well before then, even while working as a saleswoman in the Harrods branch of Christian Louboutin.
“Harrods was great! You get to see rich women and I love rich women so much. I love seeing women with Birkin bags and Lamborghinis. I never had bad experiences there, because maybe they could feel it: she’s going to be a rich woman too one day.”
The 2000AND4EVA EP is released on Nov 6 on EMI.