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Behind the Cover: Zulu — A New Tomorrow

Boundless and together as one, the hardcore ensemble signal a bright time ahead.

zulu, powerviolence

Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):


A New Tomorrow is coming and it's every bit freeing from beginning to end as Zulu's joyous powerviolence comes sprawling with infectious aggression bound by no parameters. The debut full-length arrives on March 3rd via Flatspot Records and comes adorned by the vivid artwork of the multi-disciplinary Savannah Imani Wade, who has put a face to the band's musicianship since its inception. With Zulu being intentional about every facet of their work, A New Tomorrow pleases their own creative ambitions while retaining an outward perspective that encourages audiences to build community. Like the artwork it sports, the music is far from linear, injecting elements from all ends of the music spectrum to cohesive success.


Read through a Behind the Cover discussion with Zulu's Anaiah Lei and Savannah Imani Wade to learn about A New Tomorrow's profound and comprehensive nature:

 

Anaiah, you're now making your Flatspot label debut, on a new tour, and of course, have a debut full-length fast approaching. That said, in what mindset does this release cycle find you in after years of admirable work ethic?

Anaiah: Reflecting on where it all started, it's really exciting to be at this point of the band. It's a monumental moment because a debut full-length is a statement piece more than anything. EPs are fun and all, but a debut truly showcases who you are as a band. I've been looking forward to this release way before I even knew I wanted to record an LP. Now that it came to fruition and people are digging the singles, I'm excited to show the world what we're all about.


At the forefront of it all is a brilliant piece by way of Savannah Imani Wade, capturing the role that camaraderie plays within the band as well as your community at large. Notably so, it's distinct to what one would expect from a hardcore or powerviolence album cover, which is what I'd argue makes its presentation so special. What drove your collaboration with Savannah, which of course traces back a few years before this debut?


Anaiah: They've done all the artwork for Zulu so far. It was a matter of wanting someone from our own community to do the visuals for the band. Years ago at this point, I remember Harris, who sings in a band called Truth Cult, recommended Savannah as an artist. I knew nothing about them because we're not from the same area. I hit them up and presented my project. I had a very specific idea for what I wanted back then for our debut EP, 'Our Day Will Come' (2019), and the partnership just continued to this day.

Cover Artwork by Savannah Imani Wade

For me, it has to be about more than just commissioning someone and calling it a day. I wanted to have a conversation with them about what they felt about it, what they took from it. Once they did that first EP cover, I was like, "Wow, this is amazing." It came out exactly as I wanted it. Zulu's artwork is all influenced by 70s soul records and 70s style artwork in general and Savannah has been able to take that and implement it so well.


I hit them up again for the second EP, 'My People...Hold On' (2020), and it's a Zoomed in look on the first cover. The continuity of it was so great, so when the time came to do the LP, I had all these different ideas in my head. Savannah just takes it to a whole other dimension. They did that on this LP. I knew it involved a lot of colors and had so many elements, and I wanted to make sure that I was communicating that well. I wanted to know what it meant to them because the LP is a lot deeper, in my opinion, and covers a lot more ground. It came out really, really cool.

Cover Artwork by Savannah Imani Wade

It absolutely does. Savannah mentions the goal was to express Black joy in dance, and of course, that was captured 100% here. It extends into the music as well.


Anaiah: Joy is a big aspect of the record. Joy and love are celebratory things that also honor our ancestors, honor our past. There's plenty of elements in there that speak to that, like the food offering and the tree. It's an offering to the ancestors.


The collaborative strengths between you two has grown tenfold since your initial venture together. Savannah, how would you describe the creative process at this point and how has it grown over the years?


Savannah: As mentioned, this is our third time working together now and when we first started, I was actually studying abroad in South Africa. It was kind of serendipitous. Anaiah touched on this a bit, but I was studying and living with homestay families. Then, a friend of mine introduced me to Anaiah, who told me he wanted to start this all black band named Zulu. My immediate response was, "Absolutely, let's do it," from the jump.


Anaiah has always been very passionate and has always had a clear vision about what he wants, and I've always been the person to translate that vision into something tangible. It's been very easy to work with him because the way we communicate has been very compatible in terms of him having these historical cultural markers that are specific to Black American culture, like these certain types of Black paintings that you'll find in a Black home in the 80s. I know that well, so we just call on these different visual markers. This cover was fun to create, but also easy to create because he just had a clear vision.



In a sense, you've become Zulu's official artist. As noted, your partnership with the band traces back to the roots and like Anaiah, you're intentional about every element included within your paintings. How is illustrating for the band distinct, if at all? I ask because there sometimes exists a shift from meeting someone else's creative needs instead of your own, though your work with Zulu isn't too far removed from your personal output.


Savannah: I think it's definitely a different world with its own functions. It allows me to access a different part of my brain that's still creative, but I'm not creating from a place where I'm in deep meditative thought or reflection. Instead, I'm collaborating with another artist who has done a lot of the mental and internal work around creating an image that wants to be produced. In that way, I learned a lot about my capacity to work with another artist and be able to materialize that. I found that it was easy in a different way, you know? There's a lot of emotional labor in my personal work, but that's not something I had to partake in for this. We're already there. The foundation was already there. I just had to put it together.


Even though you don't have a comfort zone per se, it sort of pushes you out to develop a more outward driven perspective. The cover tapped into different elements of your unique craft, in line with the album's boundless musical capabilities. From your standpoint, what did you look to envision upon being presented with the project?


Savannah: I think the first thing that comes to my mind is accuracy, accuracy to the sentiment of Anaiah. The first image we created for 'Our Day Will Come' was around a lot of uprisings. There was a growth in activist spaces and the publicity of activist spaces with people doing more activist work, so that was the sentiment there. It was extremely energetic and had the punk attitude through a Black activist context. It then evolved more into portraying sensitivity, vulnerability, and the role that violence plays on Black bodies. That was for 'My People...Hold On'.


I really enjoyed the direction it evolved into for this album because it was about jubilance, joy, and really the expression of joy. We wanted to create an image that would be very easy to lean into. Anaiah would give me reference reference photos or visual markers that I think people have in their mind but don't know that it exists in their mind. One of them is Marvin Gaye's album, 'I Want You' (1976), featuring the well known painting, 'The Sugar Shack' (1971), by Ernie Barnes.

'The Sugar Shack' (1971) by Ernie Barnes

The other work, 'Village' (2017), is by Cameroonian artist, Angu Walters.

'Village' (2017) by Angu Walters

Anaiah was just very much tapped into the visual language he wanted. It was therefore easy for me to translate that.


Anaiah, are you insular in that you write to please your creative ambitions through an inward perspective, or would you say that you're more overt, encouraging listener engagement?


Anaiah: I'd say a little bit of both because for the most part, there is an overarching message in our music. There always has been, but of course, that message can mean a variety of different things for different people. Being othered at times in this hardcore scene and othered in society in general, we as Black individuals aim towards our own community but from a universal perspective that different communities can relate to as well. You can definitely find something prominent that speaks to you in there regardless of who you are.


That's the beauty of your craft, which comes about from your unique perspective. Your lyricism is far from singular, but intersectional, taking on a myriad of issues from a Black standpoint.


Anaiah: Yeah, and while we do have our own issues, I wouldn't say those issues are removed from what other people face in their own ways. Obviously, there are major distinctions to be had, but there are commonalities. It's not something that I intended on initially, but when I saw that we were reaching a great amount of audiences, I knew that our message was bigger than what I thought it was. It's bigger than just one community. It reached other communities and really speaks to people. I've had the opportunity to really speak to individuals and they express what it means to them, which makes me very happy.


That said, what role or responsibility, if any, do you feel that bands have to their respective community, especially as their reach becomes greater? A band's music is of course the byproduct of life experiences and their own interpretation of the world surrounding them. Unfortunately though, outlets can be dismissive of the work actually being done and easily tokenize bands, like yourselves, for representing a particular cause or group of people.


Anaiah: I don't think bands should be responsible for that sort of thing because at the end of the day, we're just fans talking about what our experiences are and that's cool if people can relate to it. If some bands want to take the extra step to engage and play a greater role, then by all means, go for it. I don't want to be the person to be looking towards when it comes to certain issues or being the one person in the scene that has to address instances involving my community. The whole point of being in this band is to be able to show people they can do it as well, to create a network of people doing what we're doing. We're not just carrying the burden, you know? That wouldn't be the worst thing, but I don't want us to be responsible for being called upon all the time. I'm not gonna sit here and let people tokenize us, you know? That's the last thing I want people to do.



It's something that writers and press outlets in general have to be conscious of, too. Jumping back into the artwork, which of course plays such a crucial role in the release, where do you feel that you and Savannah found common ground when interpreting the album's themes and lyrics through the artwork?


Anaiah: The common ground was already there because we had a foundation. We're not coming from two completely different places. We're coming from really similar places despite living two different lives. We have very similar views on the topics that I'm talking about, so I shared those perspectives with them and it played a critical part in the process. It's always been really easy to work with them. It has never been me presenting an idea and they go in a completely different direction. I talk about things in a very broad view that isn't specific towards being a dude. I'm always talking about things from a wider sense so that it's easier to be able to talk about.

Alternate Cover Sketch by Savannah Imani Wade

When it comes down to it, we're working off each other, like building from one idea to the next. That's how we do it when we've done these album covers, especially for this one because there's so much color and there's so much detail on it, Everything is intentional. We just build and build and build and then it becomes this amazing, collaborative thing. It's not just my vision but Savannah's as well. As mentioned, it goes beyond just a commission for me. I want to know what Savannah thinks and I appreciate their view on art. They have a completely different view on art than I do.

Alternate Cover Sketch by Savannah Imani Wade

People have an inherent BS meter where they can sense when something is forced, and 'A New Tomorrow' was far from that. It's raw and organic, and stems from genuine conversation between both parties. Savannah, despite the ease that comes from a seamless collaborative process, is there a feeling of catharsis to see your work out in the world? Having invested so much of your own expertise to interpret Anaiah's vision, I would imagine there's a feeling of detachment that comes with letting go and having the work breathe a new life.


Savannah: There's definitely an intimacy with it. I think it's always cathartic to know that the person you're creating for is pleased. There have been instances where he'll be like, "That's exactly what I was seeing in my mind." To know that that was accomplished early on is really rewarding. I take pride in being given their trust because I think there's a lot of vulnerability in having an idea or vision, especially as a musician, and not being visually inclined or having that skill set. To be able to communicate that and to know that it was able to be translated is great and shows that there's a sense of appreciation between the two of us. He respects and honors my capacity to do that, and I think that's what makes the relationship very easygoing and respectful. There's never really been any issues with the creative process. Also, in terms of compensation, he definitely respects the work that I do and makes sure that I'm receiving what I deserve for that, which I think is rare for sure.


I agree entirely, especially in this hyper commercialized state of the industry. 'A New Tomorrow' isn't diluted in that way, and was vibrantly painted. The cover truly embodies the raw and organic nature of the record, as does the wide color palette and neat visual nods, like the sun setting. Was it intentional for you to create a piece that welcomed and even encouraged immersion? It's communal and representative of fruitful gatherings.


Savannah: It definitely was. Side note, but if I remember correctly, the first sketch I do for him is always the one he ends up choosing. I'll do three usually, out of respect for choice and out of practice, but it's always the first one that I do that gets chosen.

Initial Sketch by Savannah Imani Wade

For me, the symbol of the tree is very important in my work. I painted trees a lot as both a foundational marker and a spiritual marker of ancestry, of rootedness. That was something that we wanted when speaking about joy, because at the time, I had just exited an opera that I was dancing in. I'm a performing artist as well, and so I was thinking a lot about dance as an expression of joy and the function of dance as a survival mechanism within Black American culture. Within the Black diaspora and within oppressed people, specifically, dance rituals around celebration are essential to our survival. I was thinking about the lineage of that, how the tree symbolizes the lineage of that practice, and how it connects so many things. I was really pleased to see that Anaiah responded so positively to that.

Sketch by Savannah Imani Wade

There are little things that I remember doing throughout the painting that were important for me, like color choice. Color is a big language I use to communicate and interact. Anaiah wanted something very colorful. He wanted vibrancy and contrast. He wanted things that I knew I could work with and I think that it was by far the most fun I had on making a piece. He definitely pushed me in terms of adding more figures than I usually do. It's cool to work with young people who are dedicated to their craft and who are dedicated to the art being done well. For me, that felt like a point of respect because he knew that I could do it.


The respect and admiration was mutual between you two, and it shows in the wondrous body of work that is 'A New Tomorrow'. Touching a little bit on audiovisual interplay, where do you feel that the music and the artwork intersect?


Savannah: He always sends me samples before starting the work in tandem with giving me the visuals that he wants. It's very interesting to witness the image in relation to hardcore, which is not a world that I'm in community with, but it's always something that I've always been in relationship to, by like one person or one degree. It's amazing how expression can be created through many facets. I don't think that the average hardcore listener represents joy to many people, but if you go to any show, you see people expressing themselves through plenty of movement, just being present in their body in that way. It's so clear that there's enjoyment there. It's so clear that there's catharsis in their movement and I think that's something that I relate to. For me, lyrics were an entry point for this piece. Anger, and all the emotions that seem to be contrasting, actually do function together. You can see them operating in the warmness and the coolness of the colors and the contrast of the brightness and the darkness. For me, that was the key.


You touched on a great point, that being the expression of joy through physical aggression. It is in fact a release for a variety of people from all walks of life that pay hard earned money to come out to a show. Art in its many formats is a conduit for that. In closing, what role do you feel that the arts play in the contemporary world? As a performing artist and illustrator, you bring a unique perspective.


Savannah: It establishes a connection to others in a real intimate, vulnerable way. It's something that people long for deeply right now. For me, art has functioned as a tool for processing and connecting to other artists who have that same longing. I'm noticing how people have a very honest human desire to connect with others, which is possible through the arts. Through the dance community, I've found people who I now consider family because of how we relate to this type of expression. It sounds corny, but I think that it's very pure and very necessary as a human being and as a creator to have people who speak, encourage, and nourish the creative spirit. That's something that AI does not do and something that social media tends to over saturate in a really paradoxical way at times. Though it's an avenue for our expression, it also dulls it.



The joy of simplicity, sitting, reading, listening, and really just engaging with physical, tangible art forms is what I think people are longing for more now. It requires you to slow down and requires knowing one's self, which is something that the arts can facilitate. I've also seen the parts of art that are very commercial and money based. Don't get me wrong, those things also serve their purpose in terms of creating culture and making money to maintain a living. On an intimate level though, what do people want? It's usually the simple things, you know? People want the time to rest, time to be with people that we love.


Beautifully said. Beyond the relationship with Savannah, what role did camaraderie play in the record's development? Being from LA, you share the scene with a wealth of bands who have become great friends over the years. Seeing how great your current tour has went speaks to that as well.


Anaiah: Camaraderie, unity, and spreading love is a very important theme on 'A New Tomorrow' because I think that although it's something that is preached and does exist for the most part, there's a lot of backbiting. There's always a lot of gossiping, there's always a lot of negative stuff that happens, like it does anywhere, but to see it happen specifically in a place that preaches it is ironic. It sucks to see that, so my hope is that this record can bring people together. I want people in my community to come together and celebrate being ourselves authentically. We're able to do that in this band and do that with friends of ours, with bands that are truly trying to uplift each other and not compete with one another. For some people, music is competitive, but I'm trying to come up with these people and not put down these people. The only way to do that is to actually talk and talk about ideas, talk about what you're doing with friends, play shows together, and you know, invite people onto your record to play. I love the idea of seeing a future where we can wholeheartedly have that more often. These are all really important things to do. I wish it could have got more people involved on the record, but it's tough. Regardless, camaraderie was a very central part.


I'm very hopeful that we can see the new generation come in and feel that instead of feeling cold or feeling like people are too cool for school, they're more inclined to work together towards a better scene. There's still a lot of work to do in the genre, but if the album does anything, I want it to push it in the right direction. The sunrise/sunset on the cover is a very obvious but symbolic way of saying, "Hey, the sun is setting on all of this. Leave the past nonsense that we've dealt with and had to deal with because a new day is here."


I have some ideas in the future of how I want to go about furthering our message, maybe doing something like a foundation or some sort of nonprofit aimed at teaching kids in LA about the history of rock n' roll and how it stemmed from blues and jazz. I would love to be able to do workshops to teach kids how to play heavy music. I have all these ideas that I want to do one day, hopefully, but this is only the start.

 

A New Tomorrow arrives March 3rd via Flatspot Records (Order).

Cover Artwork by Savannah Imani Wade

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