By JR Valrey, the Minister of Information
Yesterday evening I woke from a nap, checked social media, and saw that another one of my brothers that I grew up with, on the Bay Area music scene over the last 20 plus years, Steve “Zumbi” Gaines of the HipHop group Zion I, had passed away.
I saw him last, a few weeks ago, at Fremont High School, in East Oakland, at a Grand Nationxl performance, days before I flew to Accra. Months prior to that, I saw him at D’Wayne Wiggins’ Compound in East Oakland, where he and Zion I crew member, D.U.S.T. viciously rocked the mic, at what is now called Small Stage Sesh.
I have known Zumbi since the early 2000’s, from our days at the Black Dot Cafe, when it was located on 23rd and International, in East Oakland. Zion I had shot one of their early videos in the backyard. Around this time, lawyer Walter Riley and the Vanguard Foundation had given the Black Dot crew $10,000 to raise awareness and fight Proposition 209. Toussaint Stewart, Marcel Diallo, Boots Riley of the Coup, and myself had organized guerrilla concerts, which culminated in a sound system on the back of flatbed trucks blaring politically conscious music from artists like the Coup, Askari X, Paris, and 2pac as well as performances from live rappers. We went from Castlemont High School in East Oakland, all the way to Telegraph Ave, in Berkeley, with a truck full of artists, high school students, and Black Dot organizers. When the truck would stop, the rappers would start rapping to get people’s attention, then the non-rapping students and organizers would jump off the truck, and out of following cars to hand people information, in addition to the info that they were hearing coming from the microphone. Zumbi was one of the die-hard rap artists that did not get deterred by the many police stops, where they threatened us with tickets, arrests, and/or taking our equipment if we kept it up; in which we did.
Another memorable moment was Zumbi and I’s first radio interview, circa 2005, when Zumbi had told me that he was living in Atlanta when political prisoner Imam Jamil Al Amin was framed for killing a police officer. He told me, during the interview, that he was actually in the West End that day, and had heard the shot that the modern day Counter Intelligence Program used to frame the Imam, which is one of the reasons why he felt so passionately about the plight of political prisoners like Imam Jamil Al Amin, Veronza Bowers, and Mumia Abu Jamal.
One of the most memorable times when Zumbi and I disagreed was during the Oscar Grant Rebellions. Streets is Talking radio host D’Nas brought rapper Zumbi, myself, rapper/spoken word artist Ise Lyfe, and activist/businessman Charles Johnson onto his show to talk about whether the rebellions were a reasonable community response to the murder of Oscar Grant, and the local government’s subsequent reaction to the cop murdering a Black man on camera. Looking back, these rebellions ended up leading up to Ferguson, and the anti-police terror climate that is prevalent in the U.S. today. I thought the rebellions were a needed-first step to dramatize the seriousness of Black men historically and currently being killed, wantonly, by the police in society. Windows, doors, and plaster off of buildings could be replaced, but not the lives of our people murdered by police. The other guests on the show, to different degrees, felt like the people who were rebelling were acting irresponsibly. Myself and Steve got into a direct argument on the show, when I then told him, the host, and the other guests that I was the only person in this group, that was in the streets with the people during the rebellion, so the rest of them were making up their opinions from white media’s coverage and analysis, and that they weren’t qualified to criticize anything or anybody from a safe-ass television or computer screen. My criticism definitely bit into some egos, but everybody had to admit to the truth, and humbled themselves for the rest of the discussion.
One of the beautiful things that I remember most about Zumbi is his love for his children. When the Black Dot Cafe moved to the Lower Bottoms of West Oakland, I remember him coming with his oldest son in a stroller, to an event that I had organized with M1 of dead prez speaking. During the ‘08-’10 era at the Dot, as we affectionately called it, I had organized Boots from the Coup, Malcolm Shabazz, international human rights activist Cynthia McKinney, death row inmate Troy Davis’ sister Martina, Uncle Bobby, the uncle of Oscar Grant, Black Panther Melvin Newton, the brother of Huey P. Newton, the San Quentin 6, and more to come to speak and teach, in one of the most hood parts of West Oakland. Zumbi did not hesitate to bring his child to political education classes.
Musically I came to know the music of Zion I first, through their classic second album “Deepwater Slang V2.0”, which I bumped religiously in the days before the birth of my first daughter in late ‘03. I loved this album because it represented artistic west coast lyricism, in much the same way that the music of Digital Underground, Souls of Mischief, Del the Funky Homosapien, Casual, the Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, and Medusa did before it. I loved that Zion I’s music sounded so unique. Unlike others, Zumbi as an MC was political, spiritual, cultural in the African sense, as well as a Hip Hop practitioner of the highest order. My favorite verses by Zumbi, that weren’t on Zion I albums, were on the Jacka’s “Teargas” album, on a song also featuring Ampichino, called “Dream”, and on Kev Choice’s “Oakland Riviera” album, on a song also featuring Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief, called “Born Conquerors”. Being featured on these two albums, shows the respect across today’s HipHop genres, that Zumbi and Zion I has had, still has, and will always have.
Zumbi was far from a one dimensional man or artist. I loved that although Zion I consisted of Amp Live and Zumbi, they frequently performed with their other partners in rhyme, Deuce Eclipse and D.U.S.T. of the Zion I crew. The camaraderie that they had on stage was a sight to behold, in and of itself. In a year, where Hip Hop lost major fixtures like DMX, Prince Markie D of the Fat Boys, Black Rob, and Biz Markie, we have also lost major fixtures in West coast Hip Hop like Shock G of Digital Underground, Mahasen of Hobo Junction, Gonzo of Kausion, and now Zumbi of Zion I. As the world turns, I hope we are able to appreciate one another more, because we do not know what biologically is attacking us, under the guise of this pandemic.
Beyond everything written here, I am grateful that Zumbi and I grew alongside each other, shared a friendship, and a respect for our people. I appreciate that I was able to know the great man behind the music. Rest easy my brotha. The world has lost another giant. Condolences to Amp Live and the rest of the Zion I crew, Zumbi’s family, Hip Hop comrades, community, and fans.