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Steve ‘Zumbi’ Gaines, Prolific Bay Area MC from Zion I, Dies at Age 49

Steve Gaines, the MC better known as Baba Zumbi from the Bay Area rap group Zion I, has died. KQED spoke directly with Zumbi’s family and confirmed his death on Friday afternoon.

The family shared a statement with KQED Friday evening:

It is with utter disbelief and great sadness that the Gaines family shares the news of the passing of Steve “Zumbi” Gaines on Friday, August 13, 2021. Gaines, 49 and the MC of the critically acclaimed hip-hop group Zion I, passed away at Alta Bates Hospital today in the early morning from unknown causes. The family requests privacy in this very challenging time while they await further details.

Steve is survived by three sons, his mother and his brother. He was working on a Zion I reunion tour with longtime producer and collaborator, Amp Live, to honor the legacy of their musical endeavors for their fans.

Baba Zumbi of Zion I in 2012. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Zumbi began releasing music under the Zion I name in 2000 together with DJ and producer Amp Live. Over the next decade, the group released seven full-length albums, plus several mixtapes and collaborations. Amp Live left Zion I in 2015, but the two had reunited for an anniversary tour together this year, scheduled for October.

Zumbi was known for weaving a spiritual approach into hip-hop, reflected in his searching, mystical lyrics, and in the title of Zion I’s debut album Mind Over Matter, which The Source nominated for Independent Album of the Year. Yet Zumbi also understood the streets, as evidenced by Heroes in the City of Dope, Zion I’s hoodwise 2006 collaboration with the Grouch. Stridently creative and uncomfortable in any box, Zumbi also strove for blending different styles, notably on the widely varied 2008 album The Take Over.

Zumbi was no stranger to the social issues in his music. In 2016, he became a victim of the Bay Area’s housing crisis when he was evicted from his Oakland home, and filmed the video for the song “Tech $” inside his house as his family packed up belongings into moving boxes.

“I wrote the song out of frustration with trying to find something affordable and being abruptly introduced to skyrocketing rent prices and hordes of people eager to pay,” he told KQED at the time.

Zumbi of Zion I performs at the video shoot for ‘Human Being,’ in 2012. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Two years later, wrestling with the deaths of his father, his grandmother and a close friend, Zumbi told the East Bay Express that he found strength in a regular schedule of tai chi and inspiration in his family, including three kids. In the recording studio, he said, he’d recently had an epiphany that his lost loved ones were there in spirit, supporting him. “Now I can never deny the fact that I know that the spirit world is always present,” he said, “and I always have to acknowledge it from here on out.

Zumbi loved the Bay Area so much he wrote an ode to the region, “The Bay,” and he performed with, collaborated with, and recorded with countless other Bay Area musicians up until his death. In April, he released “Try & Try,” a collaboration with Fantastic Negrito, and over the summer had played shows with Mac Mall, San Quinn and Equipto.

A prolific live performer who toured regularly, Zumbi also performed in the past with with Shock G from Digital Underground, upon whose death Zumbi wrote: “hip-hop is getting rocked left and right… tears stream down my face as I write this.”

In an Instagram post after the death of Biz Markie three months later, Zumbi sounded a more somber tone.

“Feels like an entire generation is leaving us as of late,” he wrote.

Copyright 2021 KQED