After three members lost their sons to violence in recent years, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club has decided to do something very out of keeping for New Orleans Carnival: adopt a political message as its parade theme.
Zulu will roll on Feb. 28 under the theme "Stop the Violence," marking what is thought to be the first time a major Carnival parade has tried to use its procession to address a civic or political issue solemnly as opposed to satirically, officials said Monday.
Zulu President Naaman Craig Stewart said he anticipates more than 1 million people will view his krewe's parade on the route or watching on TV or online. The purpose of the theme is to challenge the audience to join the city's battle against perennially high rates in some crime categories, including homicides.
Jay H. Banks knows better than the average Zulu member that with power comes responsibility.…
"The police and (City Hall) are doing the best they can with the resources that they have," Stewart said. "But this is really about the actuality of what is going on and (asking), 'What can we do as people to ... help stop it?'"
It is not uncommon for New Orleanians to adopt messages of nonviolence for public events, including second-line parades, demonstrations, and National Night Out Against Crime events. But traditionally, Carnival parade organizations have made it their purpose to preach carefree fun instead of serious civic conversations, Mardi Gras scholar Arthur Hardy said.
Nonetheless, Zulu's decision to break from that custom will draw attention to a purpose that is universally considered worthy, Hardy said.
"It's commendable," Hardy said. "Stopping violence is more than a theme — it's a cause."
Stewart said the origin of the theme is rooted in grief.
The sons of Zulu members Melvin Labat, Wilbert Thomas and Clarence Becknell Sr., the group's historian emeritus, were all fatally shot in New Orleans in recent years.
Meanwhile, Stewart said his nephew was murdered this summer in Columbia, Missouri, where he moved after growing up in New Orleans, which his family considered too dangerous.
Such heartbreaking experiences inspired Zulu's leaders to begin acknowledging issues "that impact the community directly" at its events, Stewart said. That became evident this summer, when Zulu for the first time hosted a festival dedicated to mothers who lost children due to violence.
But that event touched only the 2,000 or so people who attended it, many of whom came from a particular segment of the city, Stewart said.
A Mardi Gras parade will reach people from all kinds of social, economic and educational backgrounds, who may be able to contribute resources and ideas to the city's fight against crime, he said.
"We just didn't feel comfortable having a parade that was named after a mythical or mystical being and wasn't focused on some of the major causes of problems in our community," Stewart said, referring to the whimsical themes and imagery typically found throughout the Carnival season.
The "Stop the Violence" theme will appear on Zulu cups, beads and other throws currently in production, as well as on the titles of the parade's floats, Stewart said.
The theme will not be incorporated onto Zulu's trademark coconuts. It is not affiliated with the nonprofit organization of the same name, or any other group outside of Zulu, Stewart said.
Further, Stewart said, instead of depicting a standard Mardi Gras scene, Zulu's annual parade poster this year will feature "a more spiritual aspect."