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Muni Long: “Making a song build is like a puzzle”

In our “Artist Voices” series, artists reflect on their music, lives, and time on YouTube.

Before her ballad “Hrs and Hrs” became a staple on global YouTube Charts and inspired tender-hearted fan videos, Muni Long worked as an artist and songwriter under her real name, Priscilla Renea. Renea wrote “Hrs and Hrs” in just 20 minutes, over a beat she found on YouTube while washing dishes. But her long-game career, and current success, bears witness to the power of kindness and never giving up. She spoke about going viral in different eras and making history as an independent act.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Once you have that connection with your fans, nothing - no one - can get in the way of it.”

15 years ago, you went viral on YouTube with a video where you sang the dictionary. In the time since, the internet has changed so much. What do you remember about your life and the world then?

Muni Long: Well, back then, I would come home every day after work and sit in front of my computer and record videos. And the YouTube homepage looked a lot different. There was a “Contact Us” section at the bottom. At that time, a lot of people had been saying to me that “You could sing anything. You could sing the phone book.” One night, my stepbrother, who had a terminal illness, had a seizure. An ambulance had to come. I was up, waiting for my parents to get home, and I was like, “Okay, y’all said I can sing anything, so here we go,” and I recorded myself singing the dictionary. I emailed the “Contact Us” and pretended to be someone else, like, “I think this video is awesome and it could go viral, you should put it on the front page.” And I woke up the next day and it actually worked: my video was on the front page. It was that easy.

All these years later, artists are still navigating new technologies, like short form video. Often, an artist doesn’t only make great music, but also plays a big role in helping promote it. I imagine that can feel like a lot of jobs.

Muni Long: Obviously, technology has advanced greatly in the past decade, and I’ve had to learn how to operate so many different platforms. You could get discouraged and say, “I just wanna make music.” But I’ve always tried to take advantage of accessibility and the ability to have a relationship with the people who support what I do. When I was going back into this process of releasing music as Muni Long, I had to remind myself, like, “Girl, you know how to do this.” Make your content, be authentic, and talk with the people who are supporting you. I used to respond to every YouTube comment, and I still recognize those screen names and talk to some of those people to this day.

Once you have that connection with your fans, nothing - no one - can get in the way of it. Being an artist is not always just about the art. You don’t make the music just for you. As an artist, you’re asking people to take time out of their day, buy a ticket to your concert, drive there, pay for parking, buy merch, stand for hours. You have to really think about what you’re asking people to do. And you have to try to give them something that’s worth it. The way I look at it, putting in a little effort to build that connection is really not that hard, for what you get in return.

You’ve written pop and country songs. Why do you think “Hrs and Hrs” has resonated so widely? What is R&B giving people that they need right now?

Muni Long: When you work at Pizza Hut, you don't wanna eat pizza. You want something else. Over the last couple years, rap and pop and internet music, for lack of a better word, has been dominating, while people have been saying they miss R&B, or that R&B is dead. But R&B has always been here, and no one else can do it like Black people. I remember an executive saying that a Black artist could sing the same songs that popular non black artists sing, but they would never have the pop commercial success that they do. Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, and TLC were huge, but it felt like there’s an unspoken rule, that if you have dark skin, you can’t be pop. But I think with social media and so many people having a voice that didn’t used to, there’s more demand for representation. When a kid sees someone that looks like them make something great, they can actually get to it, and support it. R&B is having a moment it would never have had without the internet.

What does pop mean to you? Your writing credits are nuts. From “Timber” to “Worth It” to “Hrs and Hrs,” songs you’ve put into the world have been embraced by billions of people.

Muni Long: It never gets old, walking into a grocery store and hearing something I wrote. When you say, “I wrote that” and people don’t believe you? That’s how you know you’ve made something really awesome. I love making things that people enjoy and react to. It feels like what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’ve been doing it for so long. I’ve been writing songs since I was eight. I really love and study the art of songwriting. I’m a musical theater buff. Burt Bacharach is my favorite. I love the way Kanye West rhymes words that don’t go together, and makes them fit in a comical, theatrical way. Making a song build is like a puzzle. When I’m writing songs, I’m trying to tell a story and take you somewhere.

You’ve had a generation-spanning career. What might an artist who’s just starting out learn from your journey?

Muni Long: It’s tough to be an artist. There’s a lot of demands on your time and your mental health can be affected. There have been many times I was like, in my closet, crying, ready to give up. When I first started, I was living in a house in Atlanta with like eight dudes. They were selfish and rude and I’d had enough. I packed my bags and started driving home to Florida. But I remember thinking, “What else are you gonna do? Are you gonna go work at Target?” I can do a lot of things; I’m a really good cook and I can draw. But I’ve always wanted to do music. So I turned around. And now that I’ve been doing this, I can say that it makes me feel good to be nice to people. Kindness really goes a long way. I would say to any new artist: Be kind. You never know who you’re talking to, or who’s gonna become what.

At no time have we had, as a culture, so much access to learn, to invite people in, to connect with each other, to celebrate, to be proud, to be Black.”

Black History Month just concluded. What does celebrating Black history mean to you?

Muni Long: Anything that I do that's great is a part of Black history. What's happening right now with me being an independent artist is historic. I've been hearing for over a decade, “You’re too old. R&B is dead. Independent artists don’t have mainstream success.” But I’m currently having that success. Sometimes you just have to do the work and follow your heart. Not gonna lie, that was definitely scary at times, but it’s amazing to be a touchstone for people who are looking at me like, “Oh my God, when’s the last time we had a brown-skinned woman making mainstream music?

At no time have we had, as a culture, so much access to learn, to invite people in, to connect with each other, to celebrate, to be proud, to be Black. Amidst police brutality and craziness and oppression, people are still able to celebrate out loud. I went to a Juneteenth festival last year and it was amazing. There was so much culture, history, and love. I’m still learning to exist outside of the limitations that other people might put on me based on my gender or what I Iook like. And I don’t know if I’m always good at taking the time to celebrate what I’ve done and let it all sink in. But I love making music.