Nigerian-New Zealand artist Unchained XL moved from Christian metal to Afrobeat hip-hop, where he's forging an identity for other African Kiwis to look up to.
Unchained XL is an exciting and passionate new voice of the younger, newer and more diverse face of Aotearoa. He’s a self-described ‘cultural architect’ who is agitating for the African and immigrant youth growing up in New Zealand.
Born in the UK to Nigerian parents, Hugh Ozumba now cranks out afrobeat hip-hop from his Auckland home studio under the moniker Unchained XL.
His first taste of making and performing music was as frontman of Christian metal band East of Eden.
“I started learning the drums in intermediate and a lot of my friends were European and were into the nu-metal wave - Korn, Slipknot, System of a Down and P.O.D. - so I was just playing that on drums and then it grew into the punk scene and morphed into screamo and metal and hardcore and that kind of stuff.”
It was make or break time for East of Eden while Hugh was at university. The band opted for the latter, leaving Hugh to pick up on a musical style he loved back before metal - one that was kinder to his voice.
“People say that you can scream safely, but let me tell all you young vocalists out there - you can’t scream safely, it is not good for your voice. It will ruin it.”
"Back in high school I played around with making beats and making raps and that kind of stuff ... so I thought maybe I’ll pick up on this love of hip-hop ... then a few people were like ‘you should keep going with this’ and so this is where we are now."
UnchainedXL is a project that is as much good times and uplifting music as it is Hugh’s way of making sense of being a “third-culture person” as he explains.
“Basically as a Nigerian Kiwi who was born in England I have a few identities pulling at me and my life has been a journey of working out which ones should be prominent."
"My whole life I’ve always been the ‘other'. Growing up in school the kids let me know that I was not quite a Kiwi and when I went back to Nigeria and visited my relatives they let me know that I was not quite Nigerian."
He explains that in New Zealand, the broader African diaspora are all fairly recent arrivals, only trickling into NZ from the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
“The African community here, is only one - max, two - generations. The whole African New Zealander thing is not something people like me can look up to and say 'oh that’s what it looks like to be an African New Zealander’.”
“There have been many times of tension and struggle to figure all that out. It was only very recently that I figured out that I am not actually obligated to take one and run with them, I am kind of in a unique position where I can do my own thing and my life can represent a new culture.”
“It is an experience shared by so many people and an increasing number of people.”
It’s also the theme of his Foreign Legacy EP which he released earlier in the year.
Hugh puts a lot of thought into the purpose of his music and even the name Unchained XL, which was inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained.
“One of the ideas from the movie was a liberation from slavery and me being a person from Nigeria and West Africa where obviously a lot of slaves were taken, that’s something that plays on my mind. But also on another level, me having expectations upon me on what I should be and what I should do ... being able to be free from that and create my own thing was an experience of freedom and kinda being unchained.”
He starts to laugh when he gets to ‘XL’ part of his musical moniker.
“Thing is, I am a big dude, I am 120kgs so I thought I’ll put it on the end.”
“I would love to create some kind of deep meaning, but realistically it was just something at the end to make it searchable because without it would be impossible to find me.”