To be real with you, before we scheduled our interview with BRE-Z, we only knew her as the slightly terrifying Freda Gatz on Empire. We had heard she was in fact a real-life rapper but hadn’t come across her music until SXSW. It turns out, BRE-Z is a very, very talented rapper and Freda Gatz is just a reflection of this woman’s natural abilities. Not only does she write and co-produce her own music, but BRE-Z wasn’t even an actress before Empire..! Can you imagine what other hidden talents she must have?
The other thing you need to know about BRE-Z is how not scary at all she is. In fact, it’s the opposite: she is incredibly welcoming and warm from the moment we sit down, with unwavering patience whilst person after person interrupts us asking for a photo. We went to see her perform the day after we met and after being very apologetic for a wait that wasn’t even her fault, she gave a high energy performance, letting her playful personality come through, all the time interacting with the awe-struck audience who are mostly in disbelief that this TV star is meters away. Our encounters with BRE-Z and her team were definitely some of the friendliest of our SXSW experience; BRE-Z and Freda might have a lot of things in common, but thankfully being intimidating isn’t one of them.
UHH: First off, we have to acknowledge the fact that everyone knows you as Freda Gatz on Empire, as is evident by all the people coming up to you here! I really do love the show, not just saying that…your character is definitely one of the best.
BRE-Z: Thank you
I read that Freda was your first ever acting role? That’s crazy, how did that happen?
Honestly I got a call from someone who mentioned that the show was looking for a female rapper, and they thought that I should audition, and I’m like, ‘I’m not an actress’. They said, ‘don’t worry about it, just send me some music and three pictures.’ So I sent it, and then that following morning I went into audition for Lee Daniels, he’s our director, so I just went in there and auditioned. I was actually in there with like…I’m not going to say real or fake, but people that are used to auditioning, and I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. But in my mind I’m like, ‘if they like the music, then we’ll do the music and figure everything else out’, so I kind of just took a chance on it.
That’s amazing, and you’re an incredible actress – I never would have thought you hadn’t acted before from watching the show. It’s one of those questions you ask yourself, ‘are they an actress or are they a rapper first?’
So that brings me to events like this, and I’m trying to create that separation. I’ll always be known for certain things so I'm just here to really let the fans know that I do rap. I’m such a people person, I love to be in company with good people, so at events like this I’m so happy.
Is this your first time at SXSW?
No, this is actually my second time. First time was like four years ago, pre-Empire.
So how long have you been rapping for?
I’ve been doing it since I was at least a freshman at high school, or maybe 8th grade. Because I come from Philadelphia, it’s a place where music and rap (quote on quote) to my culture was like a sport; you play basketball, you play football, you ran track, you rap. So the studio was one of those things, I kind of fell into it. My brother was doing it so I started to take it seriously once I realized people are really making money, and they’re still having fun, and it kind of became that personal diary, because I wasn’t the girliest so I didn’t really have one. It became that for me, just an outlet, so ever since then just I’ve been rapping.
As you said, you’re not the girliest girl – did people treat you differently because you were a tomboy but also female?
I’ve honestly always been treated the same my entire life. I guess I’ve always attracted the energy that I give off, so it didn’t matter whether I was in baggy jeans or a skirt, I got the same love, because I was the same person, it didn’t change. I was who I was when I got here.
There are some other more tomboy-ish artists like Missy but then you have more feminine images portrayed by artists like Nicki and Lil Kim. Do you think music is moving away from that over-sexualized female image, now we have artists like yourself, Dej Loaf and Young M.A?
I honestly just embrace the fact that I love who I am. I don’t think it’s about a particular style of dress, it doesn’t matter. Young M.A in particular, I love her so much because she loves herself and that’s what that’s about. Dej Loaf, to my knowledge as it appears to be, she loves who she is and the same with Nicki, Remy and Trina, and whoever. I look at it like that, we’re not trying to catch a wave. Young M.A is her own wave, BRE-Z is her own wave, Dej is her own wave. So I love the fact that each and every one of these women can embrace the fact that they’re comfortable with who they are, and I think that’s more important. I think as it relates to the public and our image and our perception, we are just showing other women that you can be who you are, and I think that’s the bottom line.
You have a very distinctive tone of voice when you speak, and especially when you rap – it’s so good. You’re already a little bit different because there are less female rappers out there, but how important is it for your voice to stand out versus just having strong lyrics?
For me it’s very important, honestly. For me as a girl, I called the house and my mom would think it’s my brother, I grew up with that. So it took a while for me to get comfortable with my voice, because most of the girls sound like *in high pitch voice* “oh my gad”, and I’m like, ‘my voice does not go like that’, and that’s fine. As far as music is concerned, you know how you scratch your nails across a chalkboard, we hear sounds that make us cringe. I think the voice is so important and the tone is so important, because our ears adjust to certain frequencies, so it has to be easy on our ears. Some people cannot tolerate rock music because of the frequencies, the highs, the lows, they’re too much. So I think when you’re doing music, your voice is an instrument alone in the track, so it has to just be cohesive. I think that comes with learning your sound, your style and stuff like that, so I think it’s got to be the most important thing because I’ve heard people like Drake, amazing tone. We can listen to Drake whenever [UHH: all day] we can listen to Jay Z or Beyoncé for singers, and it’s cool because she knows the different levels of her voice, she’s learned it. If you talk like Tweety Bird all day, ‘oh my god, shut up’, you know what I mean?
So tell me about the writing and production & recording process for you. Do you have a particular way in which you always do things or does it change depending on who you’re working with?
As far as the production is concerned, it’s very important for me to have decent energy with the producer, whoever is providing that music for the track. As far as my process, I kind of just go and listen to whatever it is. Most of the time when I first hear a beat, it will say something to me. It might say, “making my way downtown”, or it might say, “pump, pump, pump it up”, so I kind of listen to that, and the first thing I get in my mind is music I go with. I just mumble and I hum and I do things like that to a melody, and then I don’t write until after it’s done. My song will probably be 100% complete with no lyrics before I actually start writing. Have you ever listened to the radio and you can hum a song but not necessarily know the words? It’s kind of the same thing, what you’re doing comes naturally. You might have just heard the song for the first time but it’s natural instinct, because we as human beings, our music is our most universal language, so we can get it.
Who are your musical inspirations?
I like all different types of artists. I’m more inspired by different genres; I love the melody of country music, I love the smoothness of jazz, I love the cadence and the pockets that hip hop music and rappers sit in, like a Drake or Jay Z. But then I love 90s RnB, I love just that good vibration of music. Jay Z of course, Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, I love Anita Baker, Toni Braxton, I love Whitesnake, I love Demi Lovato – it just depends on my music. I always say this about my music: it’s real ADD, because it just doesn’t matter. My playlist will go from ‘Here I Go Again’ by Whitesnake, to DMX in two songs - it’ll change like that. I love everything, I’ve been into it since they had Napster. I had AOL going crazy!
Matt UHH: Download three songs, go to school, come back – almost finished!
Right, then I can burn my CD! Then I can hit the streets. I just love music, and like I said, the language of music whether we know it or not, we’ve known it before we were told what it was. I’m sure you guys can relate that as children, you have songs that put you back in a particular place, or made you feel a way. That’s the most important thing, and that’s why I fell in love with it, because it’s the freshest photograph. You play a song that marks a particular time in your life, you’ll see it so clear. That’s what keeps me going, every day. I don’t know about you guys but I can’t wake up and not listen to music.
Absolutely – first thing I do is turn on the radio.
One of the scenes that sticks in my mind from Empire is of course the rap battle with Hakeem…I think I had to rewind it. Obviously that was scripted but it felt very real; do you miss doing rap battles in real life with their grittiness and spontaneity?
I love the idea of rap battles but I was never a person who wanted to be like that, because given the environment I grew up in – if you did rap battles, it got tricky, especially as a woman. If I rap my ass off and I kill you in a battle, it creates tension, you’re mad. It’s just a sport at the end of the day, and it’s a very competitive one. But I love it, I think it’s very entertaining and it’s very good for our culture. It’s like going to see Lakers vs Clippers – it’s a game, who’s going to win? I love it but I’ve placed my focus on actually creating records because I’m in love with those folks who have that time with music, the music we can play for years. So I’ve really honed in on that and really tried to just perfect my writing and my sound, because I know my voice is decent from what I’m hearing, but we have artists you know for sure, like ‘oh, that’s Drake’. But the rap battle was good, it was directed by Sanaa Hamri, who was a hip hop music video director, she’s from Morocco. Amazing director and she loves hip hop, she grew up in hip hop, so she just wanted to bring that grittiness and ruggedness to life - you see we had Funkmaster Flex. Because we don’t really see it no more, so that’s what that was about. Our show of course, we base it on real life events and what goes on in our culture.
How involved are you in Freda’s tracks as BRE-Z?
As BRE-Z I’ve written and co-produced every Freda track. Me, Honorable C.N.O.T.E. is one of the other producers, I worked with Ne-Yo a lot, as far as the stuff between Freda and Jussie [Jamal], I worked with another producer named Corporal. But that was the greatest thing, them giving me that creative control of the music for that character, because to be honest, Freda’s stories and mine were very similar: I was a barber, I’ve been cutting hair since I was 10; my father didn’t pass but my grandfather did, so it’s kind of the same. We were all barbers, of course you’ve got the streets that tie into it, and you know, just that lifestyle and that path of a young woman finding her way. Never been to jail, never shot anybody but I could relate to that on so many levels, and a lot of those records I had already written years ago, I had already lived it. So I felt when the role came to me, it was like destiny. When I read the outline for the character I said, ‘this can’t be fucking serious?’ When I let my mum read it, she was like, ‘this is you.’ So I was actually able just to go on set and be myself. There were basic fundamentals of the craft which of course you want to learn, I did acting classes and stuff, but I can be myself better than I can be anybody, and if I’m reading this correctly, it’s a lot like me. The only difference is I’ve grown so much from that.
You mentioned you and Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon, doing a lot of music together on the show. He’s also a very talented artist in his own right so how was it working on that storyline together?
It was amazing, he is amazing. He has a beautiful voice, he’s such a great person to work with. I think our whole cast as a first time experience, I think it’s the best experience. I don’t know if anyone has ever had…maybe just the people on Living Colour and Good Times, legendary shows – have had an experience like that. My first day on set is Terrence Howard, Chris Rock…I’m like, ‘what am I going to do?’ I wasn’t really nervous or scared, but ‘what am I here for?’ I’m sitting parallel to Chris Rock, he’s not talking to me, he’s not saying nothing and I’m like, ‘oh my god’. But it turned out well.
I hadn’t seen Chris Rock play a non-comedic role before, and in Empire he’s your very serious and scary father. Was that a strange situation to be in?
Honestly as we were working, I was laughing in between takes, because I think we only know him from being funny. He can look with a straight face and still be hilarious, so I was trying to hold it in and be professional.
I believed him, he was terrifying!
What is it like working with Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard, two very experienced actors?
The greatest thing I liked is each one of the actors who are well-seasoned in their career, they were just very inspiring. Just like the do’s and don’ts and most importantly it was ‘be yourself’. Taraji didn’t approach me like I was nothing and she was everything, Terrence didn’t do that either. They called, they checked on me, we would eat lunch together in the cafeteria, we’re sitting and we’re talking, having deep and funny conversations. It was good, I was shocked at that but like I said, you’re always going to attract most of the time what you give off, and when I’m around, I’m just cool and laidback, I’m genuine. So I think that’s kind of what I brought to the set and it was reciprocated. It made the workspace that much easier.
What’s next for BRE-Z in terms of records and shows?
Well we just wrapped Season 3 of Empire, so we come back on March 22nd [every Wednesday at 9pm EST on Fox]. We did the New Edition biopic, me and Hakeem (me and Yazz). I have a movie coming out called Fat Camp directed by Jennifer Arnold, it’s a comedy about little fat kids who go to a camp for self-esteem. That’s set to come out this quarter. Then I start a new movie in September.
Wow so you’re really sticking with the acting thing!
Yeah, I love it! In between times, like now I have off time, so it’s my music. I just wanted to get out here and touch the people. Especially when you see people on TV, they seem untouchable, TV is such a different world you think you’ll never see Denzel Washington or Amy Schumer in your life, but everyone is still human and I love the people, so I go everywhere I can. I just released a mixtape called Round 1, and I’m working on the EP now. I’m not charging for music, I’m just putting it out, I just think people should have it.
Apart from Freda, who is your favorite character on Empire?
I love Cookie. I think she represents the strong woman, she’s bared a lot. 17 years in prison is enough to make a mothafucker kill themselves, we couldn’t even fathom. I don’t even need to go for an hour, I don’t even want a ride-by. To be taken away from your kids, to lose your husband, to lose your life; that’s really what that was. To come back and try to regain it all, I admire her strength, and very little weakness. Love Cookie for that. I love everybody, don’t get me wrong, but as a woman it speaks volumes to me, because we’re softies and we cry a lot, and we never really see her shed too many tears. I really hope they get into more of what her life was like in prison. I don’t know yet, but we did just get renewed for Season 4.
Congratulations! I’m sure there will be many more. Did you think it would get this big?
I was definitely a fan the first season when I wasn’t on it, and I thought it was something television needed, so between Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Ilene Chaiken - they got a power team over there. I think it’s going to be good. Then Lee’s new show starts on Fox, called Star, about three girls. I think Empire will be a long-running show.
You can see BRE-Z as Freda Gatz every Wednesday on Empire, 9pm EST on Fox.