Last week Hugh Ozumba aka Unchained XL released his new EP The Migrant Mind, and this weekend he’s celebrating the new album at Neck of the Woods with an incredible lineup of artists on support. We caught up with the former heavy metal frontman turned afro-hiphop artist to talk about the additional weight this album has taken on in light of recent events. He also schools us on the new/first wave of Afro-Kiwi musicians and how, now more than ever, we need to stop othering artists from minority communities in the music industry.
The recent release of your new EP The Migrant Mind was unexpectedly timely. Have the events of the last week made this EP and this weekend's gig even more important to you?
The conversations I hoped to spark around this EP are ones that have received poignant emphasis by the tragedy in the Muslim community. Mo Muse, the opening artist on the bill, is someone who has been directly affected by this event, so yes this Saturday now carries a weight that it didn’t have before. I think there will be a heavy atmosphere among the energy and joy, and it’s my hope that people will take away more than just music and a good time and be inspired to confront these issues.
We've seen a lot of "This Is Not Us" and "They Are Us" and "This is Their Home Too" slogans flying around social media in the last week, yet the stories told in your music challenge these notions. What message do you hope people get from this EP right now?
The perpetual struggle to find true familiarity and a sense of belonging is a complex, tumultuous experience. I have tried my best to communicate this and hope that it is received with fresh ears. More than ever we need empathy - not the kind of empathy that only shows up when tragedy strikes, but the kind that daily compels us to trample on our deepest and most tightly-held notions of normality, so that the entire idea of “the other” ceases to be.
The nightlife and music scene in Auckland isn’t exempt from problems with racism, xenophobia and discrimination. What changes would you like to see?
My issue extends beyond the scene and includes industry and music media. There’s a specific tension that needs to be addressed I think - that we vocalise our support for racial minorities yet seem to sideline some of their cultural expressions in music as not being mainstream enough. That’s actually a pernicious kind of “othering”, as it’s justified on the basis of established and accepted notions of what the masses tend to like. But why should that be so? I’d like to see a broadening of what’s considered “mainstream” to include more of an overlap with “world music” (a genre which I believe is a horrendous misnomer for many reasons related to my point). That begins with changes in what kind of music our media, industry and venues decide to push. It’s definitely something that has begun, but we need more.
Both last year’s EP Foreign Legacy and the new EP feature an impressive lineup of featured guests from Aotearoa’s African diaspora. The same goes for the lineup this weekend. What does this community mean to you?
The community helps carry my identity, but it’s more than that - it represents newness, uniqueness and incredible potential. The local Afrikan community is a young community, and the music coming out of it constitutes a kind of “first wave” of Afro-Kiwi music. We’re still working that out, figuring out exactly what that means and how it sounds, but it’s hugely significant. We are history makers.
How does the live experience that is Unchained XL (with backing band The Shakas Boys) compare to the EP?
Many people comment that my transition from metal to hiphop is a strange/radical one. My live performance is a bridge in that understanding - the kind of energy that comes about from us performing the live arrangements of my studio tracks has a strong semblance what you might experience at a metal or heavy rock show. But it’s still hiphop and it’s still funky - so don’t be scared by this!