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Zulu's soul-sampling powerviolence shifts the pit toward love

"It's not all just about anger and aggression," Zulu's Anaiah Lei (far left) says, "I'm kind of tired of being expected to express that when I want to express love."
Alice Baxley
/
Courtesy of the artist
"It's not all just about anger and aggression," Zulu's Anaiah Lei (far left) says, "I'm kind of tired of being expected to express that when I want to express love."

Who would have thought that Curtis Mayfield pairs nicely with powerviolence? One of the great things about the savage and meaty riffs, disembodied screams and pummeling bass emblematic of this subgenre of hardcore is that, in these dark and turbulent times, the music matches the sound of social protest, political activism and... love?

According to Anaiah Lei, the founder, vocalist and songwriter for Zulu, the correlation between extreme music and expressions of anger about the current climate is too predictable. Besides, that is not the aesthetic that the Los Angeles band had in mind on its debut full-length album, A New Tomorrow, out March 3. "I wanted it to be where, yes, there's going to be some angry-sounding music, but listen close to what's being said and it's not going to be what you think it is," he explains, taking a break from the band's sound check while on an East Coast tour leg with Show Me the Body, Jesus Piece, Scowl and Trippjones. "It's not going to be exactly what you think of it, because it's not all just about anger and aggression. I mean, yeah, there's a lot of that, but they expect that; I'm kind of tired of being expected to express that when I want to express love."

Love, for Lei, means a couple of things — like expressing his creativity surrounded by friends and music collaborators, and cultivating a community of people who share a common vision of celebrating a world that often doesn't want them in it. In the video for "Where I'm From," a tribute to A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario" video, Lei is surrounded by bandmates Braxton Marcellous (guitar), Dez Yusuf (guitar), Satchel Brown (bass), Christine Cadette (drums) and a half-dozen of their friends — including comedian Eric André, Soul Glo's Pierce Jordan and Playytime's Obioma Ugonna — dancing and mugging for the camera. The friendship among this multi-ethnic crew is emblematic of the unity common in hardcore scenes; it also reflects the kinship that a lot of Black youth are looking for when participating in predominantly white, hetero and male music scenes.

"[Love is] way more fun to highlight than the obvious pain that we know has been consistently highlighted in the powerviolence / hardcore scenes. When people think about the pain of exclusion, they think about Black people. And then we end up getting tokenized one way or another... but that's a whole 'nother conversation," he laughs. "I'm just like, 'Whoa, I'm tired of all that.' And that's why I shifted the conversation." A New Tomorrow offers a similar foundation that was set in Zulu's previous EPs — 2019's Our Day Will Come and 2020's My People... Hold On — utilizing the genre's penchant to invoke brutality with carefully curated samples from classic soul, reggae and dub. While on first listen the blending of these two seemingly two sounds seems disconnected, it urges the listener to think beyond the warring sonic textures to thinking about the placement of the samples.

For instance, "Lyfe az a Shorty Shun B So Ruff" samples Nina Simone's "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," the latter positioned as a response to the darkness surrounding Lei's guttural bellow of "Help me / I'm falling out / I've never seen the end right in front of me." Simone's affirmation — the song was an important anthem to uplift African Americans during the Civil Rights era — seems to encourage the protagonist to remember who they are in times of inner turmoil. "They were doing what we've been currently doing. You know, we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them," Lei says. "And, in the activism world, a lot of people wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the likes of [people like Simone], especially in music."

On "Music to Driveby," Curtis Mayfield's "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue" nicely counters Lei's lyricism (and cynicism?) about the ramifications of intra-community violence, as both songs emphasize the theme "When we're free to be / and there's no one left to see." Mayfield's soft lilt serves as a shadowy metaphor, warning Black men (Lei broadens the messaging by removing the masculine signifier) that the community has to work together instead of in opposition, because salvation will only be determined by "us" not by "them." The careful consideration put into these samples on A New Tomorrow suggests that Lei is acknowledging the freedom fighters of the past generation and utilizing their anthems of hope to provide a window of hope — and perhaps a stark reminder that not a damn thing has changed.

Lei's first introduction to the underground music scene was with The Bots, the garage-punk band he co-founded with his older brother Mikaiah. After touring across North America and Europe as a teen, Lei is very familiar with the fact that an all-Black powerviolence band might be seen as an anomaly to those who are not familiar with the genre's culture of acceptance and unity. "Not everyone's down with the message we are going on now — [some] Black folks aren't even down with that," Lei adds, noting that he has experienced the same accusations that many Black punk, hardcore and metal fans have: The assumption that Black people are ashamed of their ethnicity because of their preferred musical preference. "I focus on the people that are down with the message and are supporters of our music."

"Part of everything about the band is a part of my essence. Everything," he concludes. "I'm unfiltered. I've always done what I wanted to do, and this album is just another vehicle to do that." As a young, Black creative from Los Angeles, a city with a long history of social and political unrest, Lei is very aware of the consequences that many in his community have faced when their opinions are mistaken as a precursor for violence. A New Tomorrow allows listeners to live through Zulu's musical outspokenness, but also encourages them to join them in their community of love and acceptance.

Laina Dawes, PhD, is the author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. She is a freelance music journalist and cultural critic and is a Lecturer in Discipline at Columbia University.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laina Dawes