Bre-Z didn't come from the ghetto. She doesn't have a violent past. But that didn't stop the Philadelphia-by-way-of-Wilmington native from relating wholeheartedly to her new, eye-catching Empire character Freda Gatz, who catches the ear of Empire Records head Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard).
Freda is a brash, butch battle rapper from Brooklyn's dangerous Brownsville neighborhood, the daughter of the rose-delivering OG Frank Gatz, played by Chris Rock. With the cockiness of the offspring of an infamous gangster, Freda's no BS attitude reflects her confidence in her music and her status on the streets. Her debut on the first episode of Empire's second season sent waves through social media when viewers watched a petite, baby-faced girl rap with a deep, raspy, androgynous voice.
Freda is regular guest star on this season of Empire, airing at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox.
Though aspiring rapper Freda is a character Bre-Z plays, hip-hop is an important part of Bre-Z's life. Growing up among Philly, Wilmington and King of Prussia, Bre-Z — whose real name is Calesha Murray — says she was always "that kid that did what you had to do." When the then 15-year-old Bre-Z was living in King of Prussia, she linked with Philly emcee Freeway, a friend of her mom's. They began kicking it and she started working in the studio with the State Property rapper, even recording her first studio song with him.
"I just knew at that point, it's not a game. It's people out here doing this and making careers out of this," Bre-Z says.
Bre-Z, now 28, left the Greater Philadelphia area in 2008 for Atlanta, where she became a barber and built a roster of celebrity clients.
"I come from a family of barbers," she says on the phone from Chicago. Her dad owns a hair salon called Nappy by Nature in East Germantown, and her uncle and grandfather own local barbershops, too.
Bre-Z went from clipping the heads of famous folks like Ludacris and Akon to LA to pursue a career in music. It was there that a friend suggested she audition for Empire, despite her lack of acting experience. Freda's attitude and androgyny made her the perfect character for Bre-Z to play. It also gave Bre-Z, who is gay, the chance to portray a character that is often not seen in the media. From Jussie Smollet's openly gay character, Jamal, to matriarch Cookie's 17-year penitentiary bid, Bre-Z says, "A lot of these things aren't for national TV." She doesn't mean that these types of roles shouldn't be on TV, just that often they're taboo and shied away from in the mainstream.
Bre-Z says playing Freda doesn't feel like acting because the character is a mirror image of her own personality.
"I honestly knew when I read the script and read the description of the character," she says of her instant connection with Freda. "When I looked at it I just laughed. You don't gotta tell me about me, because I'm gonna tell you about myself."
And in true Freda (or Bre-Z) fashion, she came out swinging when the musical portion of the audition popped off.
"Once it came time for me to spit, I already knew. I'm 100 percent confident in what I do and I don't care what anyone thinks otherwise," she says. "I'm not a person who gets in the room and walks around with my head down because I'm in a room full of billionaires and I only have $5 in my pocket. If I'm broke, I'm going to be the brokest, happiest person I know."
Her anecdote sounds a lot like a scene in the third episode of Empire, where Freda flexes her street style, showing she'll settle for nothing less than the best. That mind-set is also why Bre-Z says she never felt out of place on set with veteran, Oscar-nominated actors like Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe and Terrence Howard.
"I was cool as a fan," she says. According to Bre-Z, nobody on set behaves with the conceit one would expect from the stars of the No. 1 show in the country.
"I give all my thanks to God, because I know this is how this happened," she says.
Bre-Z is still a musician with a hustler's spirit. She released a song called "Trillest" on the night of the Empire premiere and contributes music to the show.