On Friday, August 13, one of my favorite rappers and earliest artistic influences Steve Gaines, better known as Zumbi from the rap group Zion I, passed away under mysterious circumstances at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley.
Gaines was only 49 years old, and his death came as a shock to the Bay Area hip hop community. The news started as a murmur on Twitter and HipHopDX, where it was unofficially announced to much disbelief. I refused to trust it simply because the news had not been confirmed. Only a handful of major figures had commented vaguely on his loss, despite the rumors hitting soon after the rapper’s announcement of an upcoming “Mind Over Matter” 20th anniversary tour. I searched Google within 30 minutes of seeing those first tweets, and found only one article on the matter, which basically said that no one really knew what was happening yet.
I’ve gone through a few of my favorite rappers leaving this life, but none of their passings felt as uncertain, sudden, and unclear as this. Rumors of Gaines’ death created a whirlwind of pain and confusion that I could sense brewing as more and more folks who knew him personally—as well as fans like myself—began to tune in to Zumbi’s fate. The fact that his family didn’t immediately release any public statement (they eventually shared a few words as well as a request for privacy with KQED on Friday night) contributed to that unease. Something just didn’t seem right.
Details surrounding Gaines’ death would only get more complicated. Within 72 hours of his passing, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Gaines’ passing might’ve resulted from a combination of battling COVID-19, having severe asthma, and—most shockingly—being in “a physical altercation with nurses and hospital security officers.”
The report seemed unlike the Gaines that everyone knew, and its implications for his final hours on this earth felt contrary to the music the artist had put out over a prolific, two-decades-plus career. He had left us far too soon, and such complicated circumstances made Gaines’ departure all the harder to comprehend.
But I don’t want to focus on the facts of his death right now, since those are still largely unknown at the time of this article’s publication, and seem to be tangled in a series of unfortunate—if not systemically violent—conditions. I truly wish his family the best through their grieving process, and suggest we put our energy towards supporting the GoFundMe that has been created to support Gaines’ wife and children. A memorial for the artist has been announced on Sun/22 at Brooklyn Basin’s Township Commons.
Instead, I want to remember Zumbi, the artist whose ageless lyrics and wisdom inspired so many of us as listeners, scholars, writers, and activists to live a positive lifestyle.
The emcee who lit up one of the first concerts I ever attended as a Bay Area teenager in Berkeley, and then after I bumped into him on the corner, sparked a conversation and impromptu freestyle in which I could tell he was genuinely present.
A father who, besides raising three of his own children, brought up multiple generations of fans to embrace our spirituality, our creativity, our peace, and our healing as multi-diasporic communities “from the Zay to the Sco.”
A radiant philosopher and teacher who blessed us with his knowledge of history and social critiques—and who is confirmed by everyone I know who met him as possessing a sincere spirit that glowed brightly for us all.
It’s no exaggeration when I claim Zumbi as one of the first rappers who transformed the way I understood the dimensions of what words could achieve. His role in shaping my sense of language and expression helped to solidify my pursuit of identity as a young graffiti writer. Whether I was traveling through outer space with him in Mind Over Matter (a classic album from 2000 that was nominated as Independent Album of the Year by The Source), or cruising around the streets of the Bay and criticizing capitalism to the sounds of 2005’s True & Livin’, or experiencing the group’s evolution in 2009 when they released their radio-friendly project The Takeover, it was always an act of empowerment to sit with Zumbi’s lyrics and Amp Live’s instrumentals. Zumbi’s flows guided me from middle school to high school to community college and to my eventual graduation from UC Berkeley as a transfer student. Throughout that decade—when he was at his musical peak, and I was entering the world—Zion I dropped some of the dopest albums I’d ever heard. At their live performances throughout the Area, I engaged, studied, and learned lessons that were only reinforced when I would attend June Jordan’s “Poetry for the People” courses the following afternoons. His music was an essential life force in my development, as I know it was for so many heads. It manifested as a unique soundtrack of the Bay Area’s climate back then, and even today.
Zumbi was a gateway into critical thinking, regional pride, and poetry for me and my homies. He organically existed as one of the truest lyricists and community figures, who I would continue to bump into at events when I had fully grown into adulthood. He never once failed to show love. Judging from the amount of posthumous warmth and condolences I’ve seen him receive from so many people of diverse backgrounds and ages, it’s unmistakably clear he had a tremendous impact on countless others, too.
“He was one of the best fathers I knew,” Kev Choice, an East Oakland producer, rapper, pianist, teacher, and symphonic composer who was mentored by Zumbi from a young age, shared online. “One of the illest M.C.’s and performers I knew. One of the most conscious, spiritual, and wise brothers I knew. He gave me opportunities to rock all over the world. This is devastating. I’m gonna rock for you, bro. Zion I Crew Forever.”
Kev is one example of the eclectic, talented, and inspired artists who Zumbi worked closely with to cultivate and uplift. I’ve known Kev as a friend for some years now, and I could sense his deep pain over Zumbi’s departure. It was clear what it means for him—and for all of us—to no longer be with Zumbi’s guidance. This goes beyond the death of a rapper. It feels like we have been left without a mentor who has been monumental for so many of us in different ways, whether through his music or through his in-person connection and presence.
The list of the bereaved goes on. From filmmakers like Mohammad Gorjestani sharing videos and stories of Gaines on Instagram, to those in music like Lateef the Truthspeaker, Locksmith, Immortal Technique, Rafael Casal, and SETI X—not to mention thousands of fans, journalists, and friends. They’re all putting their love for Zumbi into the ether. You can feel the outpouring of generosity, as well as the anger and frustration, in the aftermath of his leaving.
I can’t say I knew the man beyond a few spontaneous encounters, but I can say that so many Bay Area people I know and trust have expressed their feelings of being personally blessed by Zumbi. He arrived on the scene around the same time as Google, and in the timespan since his first projects dropped around the start of this millennium, he has spoken out on important local issues, like the consequences of tech money. He provided opportunities for other creatives like Deuce Eclipse, who is the only bilingual Nicaraguan rapper of whom I am aware. Translation: Zumbi was a trendsetter and a voice for us all.
Throughout it all, Gaines never strove to be the biggest name or flashiest celebrity, and that was part of his authentic aura. As a fan, I’m proud to know he was someone who came from a similar place and time as our own, and we’ll forever embrace him as a champion of what it means to be an open-minded, loving, soulful, and real person in these times.
Here’s a shout out to those late Northern California nights, sitting with your boys in a Mustang 5.0, rolling up, spreading love, and knowing that Zumbi’s words would be there to get us through it all. Because even though his song has ended, he raised us to “let our inner light shine.”