Dréya Mac: Bigger Than TikTok

The 22-year-old rapper and Noisey cover star has reached viral fame in just two short years. But she’s only just getting started.

It’s hard to pin Dréya Mac down. Over the past few weeks she’s been in LA, performing at Soho House and hearing international fans sing her lyrics right back to her, while also juggling meetings with producers and artists keen to collab. Now back in the UK, she’s been busy with photoshoots (including this one) and interviews. In fact, our chat has been cancelled and rescheduled twice before this, due to the 22-year-old’s seemingly unpredictable schedule. But today, we’re hopefully meeting close to Mac’s home in west London, where she grew up. I’m waiting at a corner table in The Terrace on Brompton Road in South Kensington – a cafe with more plants than are truly necessary, but where the fries are surprisingly good. 

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When she does arrive, 20 minutes after we originally planned to meet (she had a meeting with a record label executive which overran), she casually walks up to our table in an unzipped tracksuit with a white tee, pushing chin-length locs out of her face to reveal Airpods. She doesn’t order anything, instead finishing off a phone call and flicking through her phone, asking her manager to send her an address so that she can meet up with someone straight after this. For an artist still at the beginning of her game, she’s clearly booked and very busy. 

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Even if you’ve not heard the name Dréya Mac before, you’ve definitely heard her voice floating about somewhere. You may have clocked your mates, housemates or even your mum walking around the house singing, “Now I ain’t never been with a baddie / She calm so I add her to the tally” – the infectious refrain from viral track “Own Brand Freestyle” with Felix the 1st and Finch Fetti. The song, which came out towards the end of last year, has racked up over 80 million streams on Spotify to date. It's also been used nearly 6 million times on TikTok and the dance that Mac – a former professional dancer – choreographed to go with the track, has been made into a Fortnite Emote (meaning players on Fortnite can act it out). In other words: it’s huge.

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But Mac was popular on TikTok before the song went completely viral. She currently has a 1.5 million strong following, solidifying her popularity with mostly non-music related content (dispatches from her trip to LA, jokey clips about dates, BTS footage from this shoot). Like most young people, she is very online and knows what people want to see. “It didn’t affect me. It wasn’t unusual,” she says about the track blowing up so quickly. 

“I literally already had a huge platform on TikTok, so I knew there would [be] a good reception for it. I did moves to make sure it relates to TikTok and things that people could do.”

Photo: Dréya Mac, by Melanie Lemon. Styled by Melo.

Over the past few years, TikTok has created a sticky spot for a lot of artists. The platform has the power to help push an artist into breaking out – putting their name, face and, most importantly, music in front of an international audience at breakneck speed. That said, plenty of previously established artists have spoken out about not wanting to make ‘TikTok music’ or claim that labels are forcing them to make content for the app. Plus, for those who did get signed off the back of TikTok, they then get stuck with “TikTok star” label, which can come with its own set of problems. 

Mac sits somewhere between those two camps. She’s put music out before, but since “Own Brand Freestyle” went viral, newer fans come up to Mac in the street without mentioning her name, or even the song's name, simply referring to her as “the TikTok girl”. Despite this, Mac is insistent that TikTok isn’t a major part of her trajectory – simply a tool used for self-promotion, like Instagram or Twitter. “People think [my] success is purely down to the song that went viral. But the people who were there before… they’ve seen me blossom,” she says. “From the ground work I was doing, it’s deserved. That’s what the OG fans are saying.”  

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And Mac does have OG fans in their numbers. She first came onto the scene in 2020 with “Skippin'”, a bravado-packed debut where she showcases her trademark lyrical dexterity for the first time (“Nah, you must be mistaken, fam, I'm not your bitch / That combination don't fit”). Before then, she had a professional dance career – which saw her tour as a backup dancer and appear in adverts and music videos, including Stormzy’s “Vossi Bop”. But just as the pandemic kicked off, she decided to pursue music full time. She'd taken dancing as far as she could at the time. 

“It was never hard [to transition to music] because it was also lockdown,” she says, glancing up at me before putting her phone down. “I had so much time to do whatever I wanted and just write. It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh no, I’m going into a new avenue now.’ It was organic. I tried putting a song together and put it out and I was actually privileged to see the level of success early.” 

But it was Mac's COLORS performance that put her firmly on the map. In it, she dons a black and white co-ord and crisp white trainers against a blue background. She performed “Time”, offering an early example of her effortlessly playful delivery and melodic rap style. This, she says, is what helped her to gain a fanbase that reached further afield than UK social media (Kehlani, SZA and Rihanna now follow Mac on Instagram too). 

On the Saturday morning of the Finsbury Park leg of Wireless 2022, Mac received a message from SZA, asking her to join her for a surprise performance of “Own Brand” during her set. Together they performed with Mac in a tropical Gucci two piece and bucket hat jumping around stage and SZA singing along. Later that night, Mac tweeted out to her followers, “and this is why UK is bad vibes because majority of the support I have comes from the biggest artists in the world yet UK refuse to take me in all in due time I guess? lool”. 

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“I feel like the industry over there is more accepting of me – they take to me quicker,” she explains now, a week after the aforementioned performance. “They’re like 'this is new'. Whereas the UK are less overwhelmed by stuff. Until I’m world renowned, then they’re gonna say she’s one of ours. Everyone has the same story every time. It’s like… when is it gonna change?”

Photo: Dréya Mac, by Melanie Lemon. Styled by Melo.

It's clear that Mac has got talents that you can’t quite count on one hand (dancing, choreography, writing, performing, rapping, self-directing videos… the list goes on). This is what makes her a rarity in the UK music sphere – a double threat filling a space that no one knew needed filling. “There’s no one that does that,” she agrees. “Other than Michael [Jackson], who has passed. I know that because I come from the dance side. There’s a market for me, I guess.” 

Mac doesn’t want to be anything other than who she really is. She doesn’t list a single musical artist when we speak about her musical inspirations, instead reeling off the renowned hip-hop choreographers she studied while at BRIT school, like Nadine “Hi-Hat” Ruffin, Luther Brown and Laurieanne Gibson. “I have myself to inspire me. I don’t even use my Spotify subscription that well. I use it to check my streams, but I just listen to my demos really,” she says. 

Everything she releases is sprayed with personality and humour. It’s often distinctly London and distinctly Dréya. Self-directed “Skippin’” was shot in a scramble just before lockdown really started, in the North Kensington estate she lived in at the time, and on London buses with mates. For the “Ain’t No Way” video, she takes us into a corner shop while clutching a Magnum, later delivering lines that pretty much capture London’s dating scene in a car full of girls (“She said do you love me / Bitch, I tell her ain’t no way”). In “Use Your Body”, Mac strips back the visuals to put her choreography in the spotlight. “It’s everything that’s true to me,” she says now. 

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That’s why the myriad of comments under her music videos – the ones that compare her to other artists – tend to grate on her; even though they're mostly complementary and often refer to Missy Elliott (someone Mac would like to collaborate with in the future). “Everyone [compares] now and it's just so annoying,” she says. 

“For any new person, [they’re] like ‘This is giving me Nadia Rose vibes’, when it’s just a Black girl from the UK rapping. For me personally, I don’t sound like anyone, so just say it sounds like me. You could say I could probably amount to what Missy has done and [we] have similar attitudes and that’s great – but it’s not Missy vibes. It’s Dréya vibes.”  

Photo: Dréya Mac, by Melanie Lemon. Styled by Melo.

Mac started out this interview directly at odds with her online persona – answering questions in stifled sentences, not wanting to elaborate on her recent performances or her time spent in LA and not mentioning “Own Brand” by name. In previous interviews she's described herself as “not being good with words”, and instead, using dance as “way to let people know how I’m feeling without having to speak.” But when we chat, it feels like it might be something different than that. 

Potentially, Mac’s seeming resistance to being interviewed today comes from not knowing how she will be portrayed. Every comparison, every comment about TikTok and every time she’s referred to as “just a rapper” is at odds with how she sees herself: as just Dréya. As much as she knows that she is made up of all of her descriptors – namely being a young queer Black woman – she doesn’t like when they walk in the door before her. “I don’t want anything that draws away from the art,” she says. “People run with the queer side of things, when I’m also just a Black woman. I just think it’s weird and if we’re working on everyone being the same you don’t need to.” 

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“But I understand why people are happy because they’re having representation for the first time and I want to champion that too,” she adds. “We haven’t had a queer dark skin woman championed in the scene before – well, openly anyway. But it doesn’t have to be ‘queer’ in the headline. Men can rap about the same thing and you won’t mention anything!”

Photo: Dréya Mac, by Melanie Lemon. Styled by Melo.

It’s clear that Mac is an artist bored of feeling like she has to defend her own credibility and artistry, or fit into any kind of preconceived ideal. She lights up when she talks about what’s to come for her. “Expect the unexpected,” she says. “My creative process is quite spontaneous. People have picked up on the rap, and when people pick up on or like something, you’ve got to keep giving them that so that they can have room to accept other genres – but I don’t have one genre.” 

A couple of weeks before we meet, I get to hear what she’s talking about today. Through unreleased tracks that currently have no set release date, Mac continues to explore different styles and expand into singing too. “I just basically do what moves me when I hear a beat, that’s how I make songs,” she says, listing various genres from amapiano to soca to garage and old school funky house. Basically, if you can think of it, she hasn’t ruled it out of her repertoire just yet.

Mac is carving out her own lane, however she sees fit in the moment. She’s a fan of herself and likes to imagine her life without limits – whether those limits come from herself or anyone else for that matter. 

As we gather our stuff and get ready to leave the café, she reminisces about a video she found of herself, recorded in 2019, where she says that she should become a music artist, a year before she decided and succeeded in doing so. It’s clear that self-perception is what's most important to Mac at this point in her career. When we talk about her future she uses the phrase “world-renowned” multiple times during our conversation. she’s a firm believer in speaking things into existence, something like manifestation. 

“I've always exceeded my own expectations,” she says firmly, before heading out. “It’s like nothing is impossible.”

Dréya Mac’s new single, “Square Up”, is out now.

@nanasbaah / @melony.lemon

Tagged:

Noisey, Interview, Profile, TikTok, Dréya Mac

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