The Zulu king will have an unusually long reign, but he’s not exactly enjoying it.

NEW ORLEANS — The Zulu king will have an unusually long reign, but he’s not exactly enjoying it.
In May 2019, Brian Sims was elected king of the venerable New Orleans social club, or krewe, whose signature painted coconuts and muscular parade are internationally recognized symbols of Mardi Gras.
Mr. Sims presided over the Zulu spectacle in February. Next year, however, New Orleans will have no parade thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So many people look forward to seeing us,” said a forlorn Mr. Sims. “It’s a letdown, a huge disappointment to us and to that man who is out there at 5 a.m. with his barbecue grill and his family, waiting eagerly for us to come out.”
City officials this month canceled the 2021 New Orleans parades. Mardi Gras 2020 was celebrated just a couple of months after the first human infections of the novel coronavirus were reported in Wuhan, China, and when many officials were encouraging Americans to congregate and celebrate major urban events.
Mardi Gras was denounced as a superspreader event when COVID-19 erupted nationwide and Louisiana became one of the hardest-hit states.
But New Orleans without Mardi Gras is like a tropical resort without a beach. The impact on the city’s pocketbook will be huge, and residents will lose a vital thread in the fabric of the city’s life.
Zulu is watching the situation carefully and has refrained from telling its roughly 800-male members that the parade has been canceled, Mr. Sims said.
“We don’t know exactly what happens yet as it pertains to Mardi Gras,” he said. “So we haven’t formally announced yet that it’s really not going to happen.”
It is almost as difficult to picture New Orleans without Carnival as it is to picture Carnival without Zulu. Professor Longhair’s music, with its looping ragtime-style piano riffs, is the recognized soundtrack to the Rabelaisian event, and he is explicit on this point in “Go to the Mardi Gras.”
“You know when you get to New Orleans / Somebody’ll show you the Zulu king,” he sings.
Mr. Sims’ reign has already had hiccups.
Zulu’s parade route, which snakes from midtown down to St. Charles and the heart of the city and then wends its way over to the edge of Treme and the French Quarter, was altered this year because of a horrific construction accident.
In October 2018, construction of the Hard Rock Hotel on St. Charles and Rampart Street collapsed. The crumpled concrete structure, which imprisoned the remains of two workers for 10 months, still teetered over the block 16 months later and forced Zulu to alter its route.
That didn’t change the incredible jolt Mr. Sims experienced when he rode atop the first of the 30-odd floats that comprise Zulu’s parade. He made the turn onto St. Charles, where a sea of humanity roared with excitement.
“The howling and the screaming humbles you,” he said. “I just thought of my past and all my years with Zulu and my mom and was amazed it had got to be monarch, to this level. I’ll ride this high for many, many years to come.”
Indeed, Mr. Sims, 49, grew up with Zulu, whose clubhouse is on Broad Street and sat in several feet of water after the levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
His mother, who raised him alone, ran the lounge at Zulu. Mr. Sims made money by painting coconuts for other members.
By the time Mr. Sims graduated from Warren Easton High School, his role models were all Zulu members. The club includes many of the most accomplished professionals in New Orleans’ Black community. City Council member Roy Glapion Jr., who died in 1999, was one of his chief mentors.
“The brotherhood took me in,” Mr. Sims said. “It’s a melting pot of men. There are also longshoremen and men who run market stalls. It’s a genuine melting pot. It really is a gumbo.”
Mr. Sims was made a member of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club. At age 25, he became the youngest “big shot” in Zulu’s history, which dates to 1909.
Although many Mardi Gras krewes have complicated “courts” surrounding the annual king, the “big shot” is one of seven characters unique to Zulu. His job, in addition to being the king’s gatekeeper, is “to show up the king,” Mr. Sims said.
“You wear fancier clothes and hats, you throw your money around more,” he said. “But you can’t get to the king without going through the big shot.”
Zulu is active in the community year-round, Mr. Sims said, and most New Orleans’ krewes have nonprofit status with the IRS. Zulu’s Toys for Tots program leads to a joyous giveaway event outside the Broad Street clubhouse, and amassing the thousands of toys is a year-round project, he said.
They also distributed food baskets during holidays. Since Mr. Sims became a member, Zulu has launched a Junior Zulus program whose members offer the same sort of guidance and mentorship that older members gave him.
COVID-19 has claimed more than a dozen Zulu aristocrats.
“That’s another loss for us because we would have honored in the parade the members we lost,” Mr. Sims said. “We lost a king. It really is an internal and an external loss.”
“Loss” is rarely a word associated with a Zulu parade, which features thousands of costumed riders rolling through the city on double-decked floats, clad in grass skirts and usually in blackface, throwing beads, stuffed animals and the coveted coconuts. Although club members are all Black men, people of all sexes and races ride in the parade.
Now, however, all that is on hiatus. Like so many other cities, New Orleans moves under a coronavirus cloud of lockdowns and rules that, even if fitfully followed, have ruined social events, big and small, that many residents long took for granted.
In a normal year, Zulu’s 525 charter members would have gathered on the third Sunday in May and elected a new king and new characters.
“That’s an amazing moment,” Mr. Sims said. “We bring voting machines, the actual machines, out onto Broad Street, and when they stand up on that porch banister and call your name and your friends are pouring champagne over your head, it’s all overwhelming.”
A regional sales manager for a large biotech company, Mr. Sims still savors that overwhelming moment. But he wants a new man to experience it, too.
“Zulu will be back,” he said. “There was Katrina; we came back. Now there is COVID, and we’ll come back.”
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