Pop-rap superstar of the future Bree Runway is trying to unpick the reasons why her Apeshit video – an eccentric update of millennium-era R&B futurism – went viral. “Sometimes people are scared of standing out too much,” she says while Zooming from her east London bedroom. “I don’t feel like that, though.”

Runway’s outre instincts, which recall the cartoonish personae of Busta Rhymes and Caught Out There-era Kelis, seemingly can’t be tamed, and she has proved just as creative in quarantine. “You have to push the Runway show on,” she notes. For April’s Damn Daniel video she set up a green screen and body-popped to the song’s synth-funk beat, wearing a leopard body suit in homage to Shania Twain’s “iconic” 90s look.

Today, Runway, born Brenda Mensah, is surrounded by a kaleidoscope of vintage fashions, including a Ginger Spice union jack dress (£3 from a charity shop). Her obsession with looking on-point goes back to when she was a kid in Hackney doing the hair of friends on her estate. “We were all on the babyhair shit,” she notes. “But it was quite dangerous. I saw so many crazy things growing up. I’ve seen friends go to jail and come out, and now they’re thriving. So it’s made me really resilient.”

She had her own battles, too. After getting racist playground taunts about her skin tone, Runway started using skin-bleaching creams at just nine years old, leaving her with severe chemical burns. “I’ve really fought to get here to love myself,” she says. “I always want black girls to feel confident in who they are, and in their skin.” That message inspired the cover of 2019’s Be Runway EP, where she is photographed wearing both light and dark makeup. There is a blown-up image from the shoot on her bedroom wall. “It’s more than just a beautiful picture,” she says, looking up at it with a smile. “It’s like: ‘Wow, you can really turn your face to a camera now. You couldn’t do that before. Never.’”

Runway learned to rap through freestyling with her brother over YouTube instrumentals that spanned drill beats and Latin styles. When she was 14, Michelle Obama visited her school and praised her performance of a gospel song. Runway’s versatility gives a rare artistic malleability to her new music, due next month: she’s as at home on American-leaning trap, glossy pop, even nu-metal.

Refreshingly, though, for Runway, it all comes back to putting on a show. She shares an up-from-the-bootstraps flamboyance that has powered the work of heroes such as Grace Jones and Freddie Mercury. “Without sounding cocky, Freddie Mercury does remind me of me,” she says, sounding cocky indeed. “[My heroes] made me feel confident, because they ruled the world by being themselves. So I feel OK to step out into the world and just be myself, too.”

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