Meet Zulu: Soul-Infused Powerviolence Band Speaking Anti-Racist Truth | Revolver

Meet Zulu: Soul-Infused Powerviolence Band Speaking Anti-Racist Truth

L.A. crew are injecting joy and R&B samples into real-deal hardcore — with no "tough guy" bullshit
Zulu 2022 live 1600x900 , Steven Ruud
photograph by Steven Ruud

Order Zulu's debut album, A New Tomorrow, on limited-edition transparent yellow vinyl at Revolver's shop.

This past summer, rising Los Angeles powerviolence crew Zulu were about to go play one of their highest-profile shows yet — but they missed the boat. Literally.

In late June, the band was scheduled to appear at the 10th anniversary of Outbreak Fest, the enormous hardcore gathering in Manchester, England, alongside scene leaders Turnstile, Knocked Loose, Scowl and many more. This was Zulu's first trip overseas, so they booked a couple European shows to get warmed up. The Paris gig came off great, but then they missed their ferry from France to the U.K., which kicked off the mad dash to reach Outbreak's stage.

After catching a later one and finally making it across the Channel, the band drove the 300 miles from Dover to Manchester and skidded into the venue just in time for their early afternoon slot. Yet they didn't pause for a breath; instead, they jumped onstage and delivered one of the festival's heaviest and most memorable sets.

Zulu blazed through a series of crushing tracks that were over in a flash — all the more potent in these distilled bursts. In between songs, they blasted SZA and Tony! Toni! Toné!; and as he performed, vocalist Anaiah Lei busted out dance moves far different from your average pit two-step. Zulu are a band that knows true heaviness can go hand-in-hand with fun.

"Some of us are headbanging, some of us are grooving and jiving and boogying. That's just how we do," says Lei a month later, back home in L.A. "I don't wanna be something that I'm not. The one thing I wanted to do with my stage presence was never come off as being this tough guy, 'cause that's just not my reality. I'm up there dancing [because] that's what I like to do; it's my favorite thing to do."

The approach of melding joy with potent anger is key to Zulu's identity. That was clear as soon as they began — as Lei's one-man side project while he was drumming in straight-edge crew Dare — and released their first two EPs, 2019's Our Day Will Come and 2020's My People… Hold On. Musically, urgent powerviolence mingled with soul and R&B samples; and thematically, they were celebrations of Black pride and community as well as outbursts of fury and pain towards a racist society. The records — which were recently re-released on their new label Flatspot Records (home of Scowl, Speed and more) — heralded the band as hardcore's most vital up-and-comers. And, as far as Lei's concerned, Zulu are just getting warmed up.

The now 25-year-old Lei began his fascination with punk and hardcore early. His dad, who had been involved in L.A.'s hardcore scene in the Seventies and Eighties, would tell stories that transfixed Lei as a child. Fights and gang violence were prevalent, he learned, but so was a feeling of community and creativity. He was inspired to form the garage-punk band the Bots with his older brother Mikaiah while he was still in elementary school. By the time Lei reached high school, the duo was playing prominent international festivals (Coachella, Bonnaroo, Reading and Leeds), and garnering press in major outlets including The Guardian and Rolling Stone.

Lei says he was a confident yet dorky kid, and his unique coming-of-age story was a mixed bag. "I ended up growing up a lot faster than I would have liked to, especially when it came to having to deal with business and stuff," he says. "You don't really get taken seriously when you're a little kid. Which is unfortunate because sometimes kids will actually be onto something..."

Lei joined Dare in 2016 and left the Bots a little later. In 2018, he was asked to fill in on drums for Culture Abuse, and soon became a permanent fixture. Both bands were touring heavily, and the experience was invigorating. He recalls a Culture Abuse show in South Africa as a high point: "People were flipping out. I was like, This is so cool that even this far, here in my motherland, people recognize this band and will sing along to the lyrics."

Yet despite all this success, Lei was itching to start a band that he could front, rather than sitting behind a drum kit. It was an exciting new challenge. "I'd never done lead vocals in my life," he says. "It was so scary. Playing music already is such a vulnerable thing. But getting on the mic is a whole different experience. I don't have something to hide behind." After struggling to find members, Lei decided to form Zulu as a one-man band, though he collaborated with artists such as Jesus Piece's Aaron Heard and Truth Cult's Paris Roberts. His only blueprint was heavy, short-and-sweet songs.

Lyrically, his aim was to voice his experience and feelings directly, with no room for misinterpretation. "In my skin, you won't last," he snarls on "We've Only Just Begun." "What's it gonna take for you to see we're human beings?" he asks on "Do Tha Right Thing (And Stop Frontin')." Lei says that while it was essential to confront these issues head-on, he also won't allow Zulu to be pigeonholed.

"Racism and bigotry exist in the scene still," he says. "People will preach all about that stuff yet will go back on their own word. They're just hypocrites. I guess the only thing I can do is just speak on it, but I'm not gonna do that forever. It's exhausting. Those two EPs were just speaking to my truth, but I don't wanna be tokenized."

Lei's truth immediately resonated with fans, a fact that took him by surprise, and the buzz surrounding Zulu only continued to grow throughout the pandemic. It culminated at an L.A. backyard show in summer 2020 that blew the singer's mind. "People [were] flipping out," he recalls. "I saw it online, so that's all I knew … This was my first time really seeing up close what this band can do." It was suddenly clear that Zulu was more than a side project. Culture Abuse was breaking up around that time, after frontman David Kelling admitted to sexual misconduct. Lei decided to leave Dare, too, to focus wholeheartedly on Zulu. "Zulu is my baby, so I'm gonna choose my baby."

This year, Zulu — who is rounded out by guitarists Dez Yusuf and Braxton Marcellous, bassist Satchel Brown and drummer Christine Cadette — have taken the next step of working on a debut full-length record. During his call with Revolver, Lei is vague on specifics but palpably excited. "There are going to be entirely new realms explored musically," he says. "I didn't want it to be typical. I didn't wanna do just any record. I didn't get to even include everything I wanted to, but I got to include a lot of elements. It was tough, a lot of work. … [But] getting to experiment with all the things I wanted to was an amazing experience."

Lei aspires to a future where Zulu are entirely unrestricted, and where they'll be surprising audience members from ever-bigger stages. (A future they glimpsed this summer at Roskilde Festival, where they played on a diverse bill supporting Tyler, the Creator, Jerry Cantrell, Mitski and more.) "We're gonna do it truly the way we wanna do it, and not be bounded by any barrier — and especially any stereotype, that's for darn sure," says Lei. "We see no limit. We're ever-changing, and that's the best part about it. … The future for this band and what it looks like — in the best way possible — is so unclear. And it's beautiful."