Most press coverage about Denver-born and Colorado Springs-based rap group Zulus focuses on how talented the two brothers fronting the band are for kids their age. And that's true: At seventeen and fifteen, respectively, Montae and Tre Martin are precocious in their musical abilities, from their thought-provoking lyrics to the production quality of their new album, Attack of the Zulu. But more important, the brothers are talented for people of any age, and their youth isn't necessary as a selling point or gimmick for listeners to appreciate their work. They're that good.
Montae has experimented with making and producing music for the past five years, but he'd never recorded music until this summer, and the brothers have yet to play live.
"We hear the music on the radio, and it's really not what we like," says Tre. "So we thought, 'Let's give this a try and put out something that we do enjoy.'"
Their lyricism and flow are modeled off of rap OGs like Biggie, Ice Cube and Tupac, as well as current innovators like Joey Bada$$, Ski Mask the Slump God and Denzel Curry. When asked to describe their music, Montae calls it "hype. Some songs are more chill, but we like to go ham on the mic and just kill the beat — and lyrically, be better than everybody else."
Zulus' poetic and poignant lyrics hark back to hip-hop's roots in political dissent and social critique. The first song they released off Attack of the Zulu, "America," is a searing take-down of Donald Trump and the United States government. It clearly resonated with listeners, as the video racked up thousands of views on YouTube. Zulus pride themselves on being politically conscious, and on channeling that consciousness into their music.
"We always tune into news outlets," says Tre. "We see what's going on today, and we also take stuff from our lives and our past, and we put it in our raps."
Bringing awareness to social and political issues, especially those faced by people of color, is one of Zulus' main goals.
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"A lot of people don't have awareness, you know? They say, 'Oh I don't watch the news. That's bad for you. It's too much media influence,'" says Montae. "But I want to be aware, because a lot of things are happening, and some people don't even have any idea. They only hear the littlest bits of it, and then they have a completely screwed-up viewpoint of what's really going on. We're just trying to bring the truth and give social consciousness. Especially being an African-American and all the stuff I went through in my life, I've always kind of made it my duty to let the world know what's really going on. Because if no one knows what's really going on, we can't have our problems fixed."
Even the band's name is a nod to the brothers' knowledge and awareness of history. Montae and Tre wanted a name that would pay homage to their African ancestors, and initially considered "The Young Kushites," in reference to the ancient Nubian civilization. But after Tre read about Shaka Zulu and the Zulu kingdom, he brought up "Zulus" and it stuck. On several tracks from Attack of the Zulu, the boys highlight this glorious legacy, and question why schools push European and white American history while erasing the achievements of African and African-American people. Booming bass aside, this is not your vapid party rap.
In the studio, Montae handles all the production, mixing and mastering, while he and Tre collaborate on lyrics. Montae describes making Attack of the Zulu as a learning experience, as it was the first time he was actually composing tracks rather than just making experimental beats. Despite it being their first project, the album was finished in just one month.
"It was fun, especially getting to do it with my brother," Tre says. "And not only that, but making great music — people just really dug it, so it was just an exciting and very memorable experience for both of us."
A cousin of Montae and Tre's worked with them on the project, and their dad, who lives in Denver, is Zulus' biggest fan. He acts as their manager, mentor and designated hype man, and their mom supports them as well.
"Our mom, you know, she's a mom, so she would rather have us working at McDonald's or doing something making that instant money, but she still doesn't disapprove of anything. She still really likes our music," explains Tre. "And basically, we're doing this, trying to get money and all this stuff, so that we can retire our parents. My mom is disabled, so I want to get her the right treatment to help her get better. So, you know, everything we do is for them."
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Montae, who has autism, wants to be an inspiration to other neuro-diverse kids. "Here's the thing: No matter what you have, don't let what people call 'problems' dictate your life," he says. "I have autism, but I still rap better than most people. Follow your dreams no matter what people say. You can accomplish whatever you want if you put your mind to it. You can get good at anything. I feel like I could be an inspiration to people with autism that might feel ashamed of it. And I'm not ashamed of it; it's just what I've got. I'm living with it, and I couldn't be any prouder to be myself."
Although school is starting back up, the brothers have no plans to slow down. While recording Attack of the Zulu, they also recorded two singles — "Run Wit tha Mob," released just weeks after the album, and "Staring at Us," slated to be released soon. They're also looking into performing live for the first time.
"I'm ready, just want to get some practice," says Montae. "My dad was a rapper, so he can teach me how to move on stage and stuff like that. But that's the next move. That's the next step."