Hugh Ozumba is an artist on a mission. The Liverpool-born Nigerian New Zealander, who goes by the name Unchained XL, has recently quit his full-time job at Serato to become a full-time rapper. He has lofty goals for the local hip hop scene and where he wants to take his music. Sam Smith talked with him about what he terms ‘afrofunk hip hop’.
Hugh Ozumba is not your typical rapper. He has only recently started rapping after being the frontman in metal band East of Eden, while his style of hip hop is closely linked to his Nigerian heritage and the afrobeat that he grew up listening to. Despite that, Ozumba sees a gap in the local scene and he wants to fill it with.
“Afrofunk hip hop is an amalgamation of the afrobeat that was coming out of West Africa in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and modern hip hop. Those are two styles that I don’t think have really been used very well, and I myself recognise there’s a space in the industry that I can enter and create something.”
“The key to afrobeat is the rhythm. The rhythm that the drum establishes and the bass line. And then on top of that is a very particular layer. So you have things like clean guitars with a repeating ostinato, you have over-driven electric pianos, you’ve got djembe, African percussion, all that kind of stuff in there.
“It’s a very organic kind of sound, it’s a very rootsy kind of sound. So I guess I’m learning to craft hip hop using those sounds – and weave in some of the modern 808 sounds as well.”
Ozumba’s Nigerian background is an essential element of his music. He grew up on the music of West African artists like Fela Kuti and is now taking inspiration from contemporary Ghanaian rappers such as Sarkodie and M.anifest, as well as African American rappers like Royce da 5’9, Propaganda and Jidenna.
The Wisconsin rapper Jidenna is someone he especially looks up to as a fellow Nigerian.
“Jidenna is an Igbo person, which is the same tribe of Nigeria that I am from, so I feel a connection to him in that respect. And in his music, he reflects his cultural background and it represents the bringing together of two cultures that I want to push forward myself.”
Ozumba is also heavily influenced by his Christian faith, something he sees music as a vehicle for to spread positive messages and redemption.
“I think that Christianity provides a framework for me to strive for racial justice issues, which is important for me being a person of colour. There’s a lot of issues around black liberation that need to be explored, and for me viewing them through the lens of Christianity gives me an interesting perspective I feel.”
Ozumba is positive about the local hip hop scene and how more African artists are emerging. However, in turning to rap full time he is hoping to create a larger music community hinged on the African identity. This plan is already in its early stages with Ozumba beginning a gig series showcasing African musicians called Afropolitans.
“My idea is to connect with all the people in NZ who have African heritage who come together and make music and just be African. A theme that’s kind of closely related to that is the idea of people of colour, in general, being able to draw energy and influence from their unique cultural heritage and the unique experiences that come from having dual identities.”
As for when we can expect new music, Ozumba is currently in the process of recording his debut EP, which will be released in early March.
“I am recording a five-track EP at the moment. One of the tracks is already out, it’s called E No Dey Easy, but I’ve got a few tracks in the making, including one with Jess B and Nuel Nonso from Ijebu Pleasure Club.”
Heading into the new year it’s all go for Ozuma as he finally has the opportunity and time to put everything into his music and his vision of creating a local collective of African musicians.
“I think I’m at a point in my life where it’s do or die in terms of my music. I’m ready to give it a good shot and see how far it goes.”