As Carnival season ramped up, Melvin Labat was still processing his status as the mythic monarch Professor Longhair celebrates in “Go To the Mardi Gras.”
“I’m the Zulu king,” Labat marveled recently. “That is me. It has taken awhile to resonate that I’m that guy.”
On Tuesday, Labat leads the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s parade as the latest king in a lineage dating to 1916. That lineage includes Louis Armstrong, who reigned 75 years ago.
With Zulu, Labat sees the best of New Orleans. In his personal life, he’s also seen the worst.
On June 10, 2012, his son Melvin John-Eric Labat was shot to death.
“For three years, I was a wreck,” the senior Labat said. “My only child was murdered the day before his 28th birthday. The next weekend was Father’s Day. So I was in bad shape, and I knew I needed help.”
He got that help from his family, his faith and the half-dozen fellow Zulu members who have also lost sons to violence.
As his pain eventually eased, he found a purpose: to try to prevent similar tragedies and to help those who experience it.
He devoted himself to Zulu’s philanthropic and community-based initiatives, including the Junior Zulus, a group of several dozen young men the organization mentors.
He also volunteered with Silence Is Violence, which supports families of homicide victims as they grapple with grief.
“I work now to help other people cope with it, because it never goes away,” Labat said. “It gets better, but it never goes away.”
Winning the election
Labat has spent 42 years with Fluor Federal Petroleum Operations, the company that manages and operates the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the Department of Energy.
Given his seniority, he’s accumulated more than 1,000 hours of vacation time, sick leave and personal days. Alas, the company doesn’t technically have a classification for “royalty leave.”
“Not yet, anyway,” Labat said with a smile. But “they understand that this is such an honor bestowed upon me.”
Many Carnival organizations select kings in committee decisions. Endymion, one of the largest krewes, draws a name at random.
The 800 members of Zulu elect their kings. Candidates wage elaborate, monthslong campaigns, hosting parties and dinners and distributing gifts.
Labat has spent 26 years in Zulu. He’s served as the club’s sergeant-at-arms and chaired its Toys for Tots drive. In 2022, he was inducted into the Zulu Hall of Fame. After that, he was ready to run for king.
For elections, Zulu leases voting machines from the state to ensure a proper count. On a sunny day in May, Zulu officials stood on the second-floor balcony of the krewe’s North Broad Street headquarters and announced the vote tallies for the 2024 characters.
As soon as his name was called, Labat was soaked.
“I don’t know which was more, the tears or the Champagne,” he said. “It was such elation, and the stress from months of campaigning was relieved at that point.”
The day was “highly emotional. You realize that your peers decided you were that guy. They thought enough of me to elect me as King Zulu 2024.”
Finding a queen
Having won, he needed a queen. Labat is not married and had no obvious candidates in mind.
Krewe officials suggested some names, including Angélique Roché.
An attorney and media and marketing specialist, her academic resume includes a master's degree in international and comparative law from George Washington University.
She’s been a Congressional staffer and managed political campaigns. For the past seven years, she’s worked in communications and entertainment. As a member of Marvel Comics’ editorial team, she’s hosted podcasts and red carpet events and served as a consulting editor on the “Marvel’s Voices” anthology series.
More to the point, after living in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, she moved back to New Orleans in 2021?— and has a history with Zulu. She and her sisters had served as maids, and their mother was Zulu’s queen in 1996.
Roché and Labat met for a get-to-know-you dinner and bonded over being Black Catholics from New Orleans with an interest in community service.
“He started talking about Toys for Tots and the Junior Zulus, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is great,’” Roché said. “Because one of the reasons I moved home to Louisiana was to do more work in the community.”
They’ve since developed an easy rapport at the myriad social and civic events required of Zulu monarchs.
“At this point, I send him dad jokes once or twice a day,” said Roché, who especially admires Labat’s selflessness.
“He wants to make sure everybody has value and feels of value. He literally would give his last for someone to make sure they are good. The things he doesn’t talk about is walking women in the rain, making sure people don’t go to their cars by themselves at night.
“He’ll sneak away to go feed the homeless, and people won’t know where Melvin is. That’s who he is.”
Airbrushed faces and custom coconuts
On Tuesday, the king’s float will be stocked with Labat’s signature coconuts. They depict a roaring black panther, the mascot of his alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. Labat designed the logo with his “two bosses”?— his sisters.
He commissioned approximately a thousand such coconuts and is “not sure that’s enough.”
He’ll host 100 or so riders on his “friends and family” float. He hired a makeup artist to apply Zulu’s signature black and white face paint to his guests early Tuesday morning.
In the old days, riders sponged on their own makeup. Now it is professionally airbrushed.
“If it was a warm day on Mardi Gras, the old makeup would run,” Labat said. “The airbrush is so much better. It may not be the easiest to get off, but it doesn’t run at all. You stay looking fresh most of the day.”
During his years of parading, Labat has been a Walking Warrior and a Zulu Tramp. “I never did the dancing they do now,” he said of the Tramps. “I was not fleet of foot.”
For the past six years, he’s ridden with the Junior Zulus.
“They have a blast,” Labat said. “When they see all the people on Jackson Avenue and St. Charles, they’re blown away. They’ve never seen it from riding on a float. They’ve always seen it from the ground.”
To the Junior Zulus, Labat is almost like an honorary grandfather.
“I’ve always wanted to be a grandfather,” he said. With no surviving children of his own, “that won’t happen for me. That is a reality that I’ve accepted.”
Still, emotions get the best of him at certain moments.
“One was when I was elected king," he said. "I knew my son would be proud of me.”