Nigerian Kiwi rapper Unchained XL, aka Hugh Ozumba, chats to Ingrid Barratt about faith, music, and how hip- hop and Christianity collide.
What is the meaning behind your hip-hop name Unchained XL?
I was inspired by the movie Django Unchained, which tells a story about a slave’s path to freedom. As an African individual, that story really resonated with me. Unchained XL is about being unchained and free in a society that wants to make me a slave.
The XL is a fun way of communicating that I’m a big dude!
How does the idea of freedom come through in your music?
I often make cryptic references to the idea that society is regressing, so that seemingly common-sense notions are not only rejected but considered repulsive. I have a line in ‘Weight on My Bars’ that says, ‘They’re malicious in their intent to strip our heads of common sense.’ I’ve told my wife, Jess, that I’m probably going to end up saying something that’s going to put me in jail, because the way we are heading, the result of honesty isn’t just that you will be disagreed with, you’ll be hated and eventually criminalised.
Hip-hop culture is a lot about words, and part of that is
being outspoken. How does that fit with the Christian ethos
of being humble?
There’s an analogy with Christians in combat sports, I think, in that it’s a mental game and you have to intimidate your opponent. In hip-hop, the combat is verbal—we actually call lyrics ‘punchlines’. It’s an interesting tension and somewhat of a paradox. I do keep myself in check about the kind of things I say, and how far I push it. I’m never going to be really insulting of people and who they are.
What about the materialistic side of hip-hop culture?
The materialistic stuff is what you hear on the radio, and to me that’s quite cliché and uninteresting. The majority of hip-hop exists under the radar of most of mainstream culture—it’s about how you use your words; it’s about politics, socio-economics, real-life stories. All that deep and interesting stuff, and that’s the kind of thing that grabs my attention.
How did you come up with your funk-inspired sound?
One of the main influences on my sound is my Nigerian heritage, particularly a genre of music called ‘afrobeat’. One of its pioneers was a Nigerian artist famous in the ’70s called Fela Kuti. I fell in love with that sound—and it’s music from my culture, so it resonated with me.
How did you meet Jesus?
I was raised in a Christian home and I started making my faith my own in high school. I can’t point to any specific moment, I just recall it being more important and more mine as I got older. I’ve had peaks and troughs, but God has always reminded me he’s there. My natural instinct is to process things at an intellectual level, but I’ve felt as if God knows that, so he’s communicated to me through prophetic words that I can’t rationalise away. It’s always happened so powerfully that there is no other way to explain it—and it always happens at a time in my life when I really, really need it.
Tell me about your passion for arguing for your faith?
Naturally I’m argumentative, so I know I need to be able to answer people’s questions about faith. When I got to university, it really became a passion for me because I realised that apologetics (giving a rational account of faith) exists in very academic spaces as well. Last year, I sat on a panel and we invited people to provide a challenge for Christianity—we wanted people to ask the questions they were too afraid to ask, and to see that Christianity can stand up to their questioning.
I’ve known some people who think once they start questioning, they have to leave the church …
Exactly, and that indicates quite a sad failing of our churches! Especially in light of the fact that the church has a rich intellectual history—fathers of Western Christianity like Augustine, Aquinas and Anselm were monsters in philosophy. Even the Big Bang was discovered by a Catholic priest! So why is the majority of the Western church not continuing that tradition of deep thinking?
Do you see music as a ministry?
My general pose is that I’m a Christian, so naturally that is going to come out in my music. I am aware how cliché this sounds, but I just want to be authentic. I don’t necessarily identify myself as a ‘Christian rapper’, but I’m happy for
people to call me that if they need to so categorise me. One of my goals is to be in the secular space, but to maintain the things that are important to me. For example, all my songs
are lyrically clean. And in how I conduct myself, I’m always going to aim to have a character that people will know is not the same as everyone else.
Connect with Unchained XL on Facebook: www.facebook.com/unchainedxl