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

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MC Baba Zumbi from the hip-hop group Zion I.
MC Baba Zumbi from the hip-hop group Zion I. (Marc Fong)

This story has been updated.

Steve Gaines, the MC known as Baba Zumbi from Bay Area hip-hop group Zion I, has died. KQED spoke 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.

Neither Zumbi's family nor his publicist would address reports that he died from complications related to COVID, as told to KQED by close friends. Zumbi was said to be hesitant about receiving the COVID vaccine.

Earlier Friday, the Los Angeles hip-hop collective Project Blowed posted a statement from DJ True Justice, a touring DJ for Zion I, saying that Zumbi had been recovering from COVID when "he had a severe asthma attack and his heart stopped. He died in the hospital. They were unable to revive him."

But Berkeley police, who responded to a physical altercation between a patient and hospital staff shortly after 5am on Friday, are now investigating Zumbi's death. A spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department told the San Francisco Chronicle that the involved patient was eventually pinned down by hospital security. The spokesperson added that, upon arrival, officers began handcuffing the patient when they determined that he needed immediate medical assistance.

Police and hospital staff performed livesaving measures, the spokesperson said, but the patient was unresponsive and pronounced dead at the scene. Police dispatch recordings reviewed by KQED identify the patient as Steven Gaines.

Baba Zumbi of Zion I in 2012.
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 and a half, the group released nine full-length albums, plus several mixtapes and collaborations. Amp Live left Zion I in 2015, but the two had reunited this year for an anniversary tour together, 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 in 2000.

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 strove for blending different musical 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.
Zumbi of Zion I performs at the video shoot for 'Human Being,' in 2012. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Two years later, while wrestling with the deaths of his father, his grandmother and a close friend, Zumbi told the East Bay Express that he found strength in tai chi and inspiration from his family, including his three kids. In the recording studio, he said, he'd had an epiphany that his deceased 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 that 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 past summer had played shows with Mac Mall, San Quinn and Equipto.

A prolific live performer who toured regularly, Zumbi had also performed 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 last month, Zumbi sounded a more somber tone.

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

Pendarvis Harshaw contributed reporting.