After years of being behind the scenes as the music industry’s secret weapon for other artists, Muni Long (born Priscilla Renea Hamilton) is ready for her moment to shine. The songwriter, who has written hits for Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Selena Gomez and many more, finally made noise as the face of her own music with the smash hit “Hrs and Hrs.”
The buzzy R&B track landed the No. 1 spot on Billboard‘s Hot R&B Songs chart back in February and hit the Billboard Hot 100 top 20, and as of Tuesday, it’s nominated for best R&B performance and best R&B song at the 2023 Grammy Awards, while Muni picked up a best new artist nod.
The breakout song was included on her album Public Displays Of Affection: The Album, released in September via Supergiant Records. Now with a hit track on her hands and three Grammy nominations under her belt, Long shares her excitement with Billboard and discusses her songwriting journey, battling lupus and more.
You got nominations for best R&B performance, best R&B song, and best new artist. How do you feel? I’m sure this is an exciting moment in your life.
When I first found out — I’m not super emotional, but I definitely cried for a couple of minutes because it was a relief. I feel really good. I feel very grateful. And it’s historic. My age [Long is 34], spending my own money, coming from my background. It was unheard-of stuff. I’m super grateful that the conversation is happening and that people are watching me and then the messages I get about people being inspired and they really do have stars in their eyes watching me, and that feels amazing.
This is not your first time being nominated; you were nominated for your work on H.E.R.’s Back of My Mind album earlier this year. How different does it feel being nominated as an artist as opposed to a songwriter?
I’ve been nominated [as a songwriter], but it’s different when you are the person that is the face. And the reason I say that is because, as a songwriter, there’s always like a chain of command that you have to go to, people who say whether your art is up to par. No matter how much you know, it’s still people that get to gatekeep.
When you, as an artist and especially doing it the way that I did it, which was independent, I am the captain of the ship even now with my partnership with Def Jam. I have a full creative license and I have support … relationships that … amplify the direction that I want to go.
And so to get the acknowledgment from my peers, because that’s who vote on whether you’re nominated. And then the next step is whether you win, it’s your peers. And to have them say, “Yes, what you did is incredible. We appreciate your contribution. We appreciate your art.” It’s incredibly reassuring. It’s just that pat on the back to say continue trailblazing, continue being a visionary, continue leading with your heart.
How did you celebrate your nominations?
Without revealing too much, we had an incredible weekend in Vegas, performed at the Soul Train Awards. We had dinner afterwards, and we had a great time.
You wrote your first U.K. No. 1 single, 2012’s “Promises,” for Cheryl Cole. How did that lead you to working with major artists such as Rihanna, Ariana Grande, etc.?
I think it was just continuing to show up and being present when I would get the phone call — like last night it happened. I had a 14-hour shoot and actually two different shoots, a commercial and a magazine spread. And I got a phone call: “Hey, do you want to go in with so-and-so artist?” And I said, “I’m tired, but yes, I’m going. I’m coming.”
I was like, I’m not going back [home] to Florida. If I do [I’ll] end up working at Target and having 10 babies — not that there’s anything wrong working at Target, I just don’t want to do it. And so I said, “I wanna be a writer,” but I didn’t even know that was the thing. So I showed up to L.A. I was in like $20,000 of debt because I was only 19. I wasn’t old enough to rent a car. I didn’t have any credit. So my publisher and my management had to pay for everything. So I racked up a bill pretty quickly.
I’m overbooking myself and I had like five sessions a day, every day writing two or three songs a session. That’s how I did. And it wasn’t like they were like, “Do you want to write for Rihanna?” I just wrote the song, and it ended up on Rihanna. So that’s how it happened. To be honest, I just was grinding… stealing toilet paper from the studio, emptying the fruit bowl in my backpack because I didn’t have the money.
I know you’ve been in the game for over a decade writing songs for other artists. Did you face any colorism in the music biz? If so, how did you navigate that to break through and earn your respect as a musician?
I remember one time I was at Capitol Records because I was 19 years old and we were interviewing marketing and publicity people outside of the label. And I had this lady come to the studio, and she said to me, “Nobody wants to see a brown skinned, big nose, big butt girl singing pop music.”
Thank God I don’t get easily offended. But I may have internalized that a bit because throughout the years I have always just sort of had this slow burn in my throat writing these songs, because I would sometimes — let’s just be honest, all the time — I would be the only Black person in the room writing these songs… and they want the juice. They want me to be Black, and then the artist comes and they sing it very mainstream, watered down a bit, so that it is digestible and palatable.
And then you have executives saying things like Ariana Grande, they can do R&B music and it’ll be pop, but a Black person can’t do that same thing. I decided to put that in the trash and be like, “I don’t believe that.” Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, so many women that I can continue to name: brown skin, beautiful, successful, iconic women.
My skin color shouldn’t dictate whether my music has feeling and soul and whether it touches people because they have to hear it first before they see me. And if I make something that is incredible enough, they will have fallen in love with it before they see me. I think it also works because I changed my name to Muni Long. Nobody knew who that was. They didn’t know it was Priscilla Renea. By the time they found out, the song [“Hrs and Hrs”] was already huge. People just love their music. It doesn’t matter what the person looks like.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned about the music industry working with artists that you now apply to yourself as a musician?
It’s always going to be some bullsh–. And you got to be a linebacker. I think sometimes people get butthurt over the first little thing and they quit. I was determined. I don’t care what you say. I don’t care what you do. I’m going to continue and I’m going to be something. And one day you’re going to be sorry. That was my attitude.
It’s hard and it definitely hurts. But I’m not going to quit. I almost did a lot of times. But I’ll wake up the next day and be like, “Well, what else can I do? I don’t want to do anything else.” I would rather not be here than not make music. So I would just say, you have to be tenacious.
Let’s talk about “Hrs and Hrs.” Did you expect the song to gain as much traction as it has from the masses, especially after it hit No. 1 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay?
I just liked it a lot. And my friends liked it. I’m still trying to understand the magnitude. Like the first time I really understood that the song was blowing up was about five days, because it took six days for it to go No. 1 on the iTunes and chart on Billboard.
What’s your fondest memory of people hearing the song?
I was driving back to my mom’s house, and I heard this song and I’m like, patting my pockets for my phone like, “Where is that coming from?” I looked out the window, and it was the car next to me. But I’m in my hometown, which is very small.
And so I’m like, “Oh, sh–, they’re playing the song!” And she was going in too. You can see her finger was up in the air and she was singing from the bottom of her lungs, I’m like, “Wow, this must mean the song is really blowing up for real and not just on the internet.” That was the first time it really hit me like, “Oh, this is something.”
How do you think you’ve grown as a musician since you released your debut album, JukeBox, when you were signed to Capitol Records to now with Public Displays of Affection: The Album?
I definitely see Priscilla Renea and Muni Long as two separate entities. I think I was so unaware as Priscilla, I was just doing stuff. As Muni Long, I’m aware, I’m intentional.
I took two years off between my last project that I put out as Priscilla to when I started my label [Supergiant] from 2018 to 2020. I really wasn’t writing anything. I just took that time to just sit and think, “OK, what am I to do? Who do I want to be?” I hate songwriting for other people. I did it as a form of survival, and everybody told me that I was so good at it. You should keep going. It’s not a good enough reason. It does not fulfill me.
It wasn’t until I took those two years to really do the inner work for myself… that I started to realize how much actually goes into being an artist. And so as Muni, I really put on about 15 different hats and I compartmentalize. And I just chipped away at the tree and started building this world totally different, like night and day. It literally was like a reset.
And I was researching and watching documentaries and watching music shows and just gathering information. I pretty much put myself through music college for two years, and then when I finally did start… like me with faith in the knowledge that I had, relying on my skill set as a songwriter and a recording artist to be able to push through. And it worked.
You were diagnosed with lupus and had to cancel your 2022 One Night on Tour. How have you been navigating this illness?
This restriction and limitation has just made me so much quicker to push past the problem. So I don’t like to dwell on something. Because this is stress-related and you have flare-ups when you’re upset, when you’re anxious… it really do affect you mentally.
And I can’t have anything messing with my brain because that’s where the songs come from. So I would say that it just made me stronger, really. It made me put up boundaries. It made me just not tolerate people’s mess.
I don’t feel bad anymore. I’ve actually overcome a lot of the diagnosis and I’m working on a path to full recovery. To be honest, my lupus was triggered by a lawsuit. That was music industry related, 2014. My former management sued me for no reason, but you don’t really need a reason in America, and it was very stressful. So I’m working on undoing that… I’m on the road to recovery.
Do you ever plan to go on a full-length tour anytime soon?
Absolutely. Obviously, protecting my health… and being strategic about the routing. But I absolutely want to get in front of people and sing. I’ve been doing awards show performances lately and just the feeling of the interaction with the audience I miss so much. It’s just an incredible feeling, a rush that I can’t wait to get back to.
Lastly, what do you want your legacy to be?
I want my legacy to be that I never give up. I never quit. That I’m for the people. And I’m for women who look like me. You know, brown girls breaking barriers. When somebody tells me I can’t do something or that is not possible, I have to do it. So I pride myself on being a glass-ceiling breaker.