The Cover Story

ZULU: “People expect us to be angry, but there’s a lot of joy that we emit”

ZULU are one of the best new bands in the heavy scene today. On the eve of their debut album A New Tomorrow, vocalist Anaiah Lei meets Kerrang! to talk about his life in music, Los Angeles, and most importantly love…

ZULU: “People expect us to be angry, but there’s a lot of joy that we emit”
Luke Morton
Alice Baxley

The world is divided. Left vs. right, rich vs. poor, us vs. them. Take one cursory glance at social media or the news and the discourse about our differences is deafening. Negativity is at an all-time high, and for decades artists within heavy music have channelled this inherent anger and vitriol into their music, lashing out at their enemies and calling for rebellion. Few bands, however, focus on the joys of life, and all that is good in the world.

Enter Los Angeles powerviolence crew ZULU. Upon the announcement of their upcoming debut LP A New Tomorrow, vocalist Anaiah Lei said he wanted to make a positive record that focused on love. Speaking to Kerrang! today, just outside of Austin, Texas, on tour supporting Show Me The Body, the 26-year-old frontman is considering why that was such an important decision.

“It’s always been an aspect that I’ve wanted to talk about, because it’s always been a major part of life – love and also hope,” he explains. “In this genre, it’s cool to let out your anger and great to talk about the things that trouble you, because it’s an outlet where you can do that, and I’ve done that.

“[Heavy music] has always been a place where [people] go when they’ve been othered by the rest of the world, and they need a place to find solace and talk about all of the problems they go through, and just let it out – whether you’re singing or stage-diving or in the pit, there are ways to let it out. It’s always been like that, but I don’t think it stems from a place of love.”

Having been involved in music and playing in bands for pretty much as long as he can remember, Anaiah knows of what he speaks. Moreover, he understands the pressure and perception of a debut album, especially one as highly-anticipated as ZULU’s, having sent shockwaves through the hardcore scene with two explosive EPs and reliably chaotic live shows. He describes his upcoming record as a “big statement piece” that he wants to stand the test of time.

“Not that that couldn’t be done if I was just talking about anger and aggression,” he swiftly clarifies, “but I wanted to talk about all these things, because they’re a whole other side to us and as people in general. In life it’s not just about anger or hardship; I want to influence people, but to have it come from a place of love.”

But with so much to be angry about, was it difficult to hone in on the positives of the world? Not wanting to get into the specifics, Anaiah says changes in his personal life directly affected his outlook. Explaining that he “went through a whole transition midway through making the record” that made him realise who he wanted to be, it became easier to put all his energy into finding hope and happiness.

Ideas of hope are stitched into the fabric of A New Tomorrow, as are notions of identity, solidarity and community. The latter of these can mean much to many different people, whether it’s your neighbourhood, your Discord channel or the industry you work in. For Anaiah, the concept of community is well-defined, but it doesn’t always mean that you’re welcome.

“The most important part about it is actually doing things together and involving each other,” he begins, when asked what community represents to him. “Whether that’s putting on shows, putting on events, and supporting other bands that are in our community. And I’m specifically referring to my people – that’s the most important part – because in society we’re often running against the treadmill on many occasions, and it’s sucky because that’s not what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to be together and living in harmony and united.

“We’re trying to build that community of people who’ve always felt that same way. Being able to form our own scene, basically… It has been changing and getting better, but there’s still a long way to go and that’s the reality. But I’m very happy to see that it is changing and people are starting to unify more. On the internet it’s easy to get connected with people but it starts in your own scene.”

“I want to influence people, but to have it come from a place of love”

Anaiah Lei

Despite his die-hard passion for hardcore and the empowering, righteous message it propagates, Anaiah has never felt accepted or even wanted by certain corners of the community. On A New Tomorrow’s standout track Where I’m From, featuring Soul Glo’s Pierce Jordan, he holds the scene to account, calling out those on both sides who feel that bands like ZULU don’t belong with the charged ‘We can’t be who we want to be’.

“I feel like that lyric says it all,” he sighs. “Even in our own scene, we can’t be ourselves, because we have an expectation from people based on how we look. They expect that we’re just into one thing. It’s kind of crazy because in the outside world, trying to be fans of hardcore or metal or any genre outside of what they expect us to listen to is weird, and they make us feel weird for listening to that music, because it’s not music that ‘belongs’ to us. Whatever that means. But within the scene that we strive to be in, those people question us and also make us feel like we don’t belong! It’s a crazy double-edged sword. To the outside world I can’t express this because they don’t expect it from me, but inside that space, they do the exact same thing. I literally can’t be who I want to be without it being interrupted.”

The depressing irony of this is not lost on Anaiah. He describes the idea of not fitting in – and not wanting to fit in – as “the essence” of why so many people are drawn to heavy music and hardcore punk in the first place. But now, he says, the scene “became like a club”, effectively going against everything it originally stood for.

“At this point, it’s not even about wanting to be a part of things, it’s about wanting to create my own space, do our own thing and be involved with people that are on the same [wavelength] as we are. I’m not trying to be involved in those spaces anymore – we’re creating our own.”

Anaiah was born and raised in Los Angeles, a city of great wealth disparity, with notorious gang violence and historical racial tension. Growing up, he moved around a lot, staying with his mum or dad in different parts of the City Of Angels, providing insight into how the other half live.

He remembers living in suburbia, where “everyone was on some different ‘agenda’ when it came to who their neighbours were… and I say that in a sense that I started to understand racism early on”. Anaiah also spent time in areas he simply describes as “rough”.

No matter where he lived, though, he had music. As a youngster, Anaiah listened to a lot of reggae, dub and soul, but was eventually introduced to the heavier side of sound, from British post-punk to LA hardcore. Asked what drew him to the harder edges of music, he can’t recall as it happened so early in life, but laughs that he found it fascinating hearing how fast people could play.

At nine years old, Anaiah formed a band with his older brother Mikaiah called The Bots. Their scrappy, two-piece garage-punk received a lot of attention early on, and by the age of 12 he was drumming his way across America on Warped Tour. Throughout his teenage years, while his friends were navigating the hormone-ridden hellscape that is high school, Anaiah was playing Coachella and Glastonbury.

“Being that young and touring for that long with that band, I learned so much about the music industry, so much about touring… everything I know now I learned through being in that band,” he says. “As a kid, you go through the trials and tribulations of just growing up, but having to grow up in that setting was just different because I had expectations put on myself, and I didn’t know how to balance out the two. I don’t think any kid should have to go through that.”

Likening his experience to that of child actors, Anaiah admits he grew up faster than he would have liked, but wouldn’t change a thing, as it’s given him the education and grounding in how music actually works, which he can put into ZULU.

Initially started as a solo project after his vegan straight-edge outfit fell through, ZULU is a much heavier proposition than The Bots. A flurry of low-slung riffs, machine-gun vocals and pummelling percussion, their songs are short, sharp shocks of powerviolence, with most tracks rarely touching the two-minute mark.

Another obvious change from his previous band is that Anaiah is no longer behind the kit, but up front with a mic. It was a difficult process switching roles, he admits, as he found it much easier to “exist in the background and support the rest of the band” with the rhythm.

“Trying to put on a persona at the front, it kind of had me a little shaken up because I was like, ‘Okay, what do I want to portray when I’m up there?’” he says. “That’s the first thing that came to mind. What does that look like to me? I’ve always wanted to just keep it real and stay true to who I am, so I wanted to convey that onstage, and while I want to keep to who I am, there’s a part of you that you have to let go of when you’re up there. You have to let go and feel the music.”

“The band was started as powerviolence, but it’ll change…”

Anaiah Lei

And there is a lot to feel. While ZULU exist in a similarly vicious vein to Gulch and Jesus Piece, their brand of heaviness is much more than all-out war, incorporating elements of R&B and soul into A New Tomorrow’s interludes and instrumental passages, finding influence in the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone and John Coltrane.

“The band was started as powerviolence, but through time, things do change, and in the future it’ll change even more,” Anaiah explains. “I don’t want to limit what we can do and what I know we can do with the skills that we have.

“People always look at you a little sideways when they see that you start to change genre and other things, but the reality is that I don’t really care what anyone thinks.”

ZULU isn’t just a way for Anaiah to share the duelling soulful and savage sounds that make up his music taste, it’s also a vehicle to share his thoughts with the world. Throughout this truly incendiary debut record, he uses his platform to speak on unity, gun violence and the appropriation of Black culture. Yet, the overarching narrative is one of optimism and striving for a better future, from the album title through to the lyrics to the powerful poetry recital Créme de Cassis.

Opening the album with two instrumental-led tracks, first song proper Our Day Is Now solidifies the idea of togetherness and strength that Anaiah wanted to instil in his music from day one.

“It talks about the two sides of what people want us to be: people want us to be divided, they want us to be angry. Sometimes it feels like people don’t want us to live in harmony, which is crazy. They only expect that from us because they’ve only seen that from us for so long. But hold up, we have a whole other side that you’re missing and I don’t know how you’re missing it, but there’s a lot of love, a lot of creativity, and a lot of joy that we emit. Like I say in the song, you only see what you want to see, but there’s way more to us than that, and we make that very clear.”

Although love and hope remains at the core of A New Tomorrow, don’t confuse this for weakness. Speaking to Anaiah today, rarely have we heard a voice more determined, intelligent and confident in who he is and what he stands for. This isn’t just a record made for his community, but for those on the outside to hear and understand their experience.

With its title taken from a Compton’s Most Wanted LP, the following track Music To Driveby comments not just on gun and gang violence that seeks to divide people, but also the systemic issues in society that threaten to widen the fracture.

“For people that are born into the gang life, that is what they know and is all they know, and that’s the reality they have to face on a day to day,” Anaiah explains. “It’s not something to glorify, this is a daily struggle for a lot of people, so I’m shedding a tiny bit of light on that and how real it is that those things can happen in an instant when you least expect it.

“One day we’ll be able to see ourselves more unified, but what if there’s no-one left to see that with us, if everyone’s been continuously put against each other?” he adds. “That doesn’t just exist in gun violence and murder, it can exist in mental division as well. It can be brainwashing and the influence of how white supremacy will divide us too. That also comes out of nowhere, like a driveby would.”

Perhaps the strongest side of Anaiah’s life to permeate through the record, though, is his spirituality. He grew up Rastafarian, and if you look at ZULU’s merch and album inserts, you’ll see a heavy influence of Afro-Caribbean and Rastafarian culture, and hear smatterings of Jamaican patois in their lyrics. He is a Muslim now, but says that there’s a lot of Rasta spirituality “ingrained in where the band comes from” and throughout their music, most notably closing track Who Jah Bless No One Curse (the title of which comes from a Bob Marley song).

“Growing up Rasta and being Muslim is not far off in the way I practice, culturally it’s not too far off, it all ties into the spiritual aspect that this band has so much of. At the beginning of the band, with the first record, you could hear that and all throughout the history, there is this presence of god in there.”

He stops himself quick, and is keen to point out that ZULU are not a religious band.

“That’s not the point of it at all, it’s just sprinkling aspects of my life into it. No-one looks at us in that light, no-one bats an eyelid. It would be different if we were an all-Christian band, you can tell the difference between that and tastefully sprinkling it in but not making it the centrepoint. But at the same time, it’s something to be noted.

“I would be wrong, especially as a Muslim, to condemn anyone for what they believe or don’t,” Anaiah continues. “You are your own person and you are entitled to your own life, it’s not for me to decide. All I can do is talk about my reality and that’s what I do on the record, and I include all those things because they are influences to the music and in my life.”

And it’s in this closing track that all aspects of ZULU meld together, the perfect concoction of everything we’ve discussed over the past hour, mixing elements of spirituality with caustic brutality and an unwavering resolve to persevere and be the change you want to see in the face of overwhelming opposition, as spat out in the ferocious final line ‘Babylon surprised / Ghetto youth pon di rise’.

“There is change, there has been change, there will be more change,” says Anaiah, assertively. “If you are so surprised about it that it’s happening, I don’t know why. We’ve been doing this for so long, people have been rising up for a long time and they will continue to.

“I want people to know that this is gonna happen, it’s gonna keep happening, and to be ready.”

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