“… Always in my life, till the day that I die,” raps Zumbi of Zion I, to conclude one of his most poignant verses in “Bird’s Eye View”. Yet, not a single person ever expected for those words to come to fruition so abruptly. Born Stephen Gaines, his family has confirmed the prolific MC’s untimely passing Friday at the age of 49 in a statement to KQED.
The official cause of death remains unconfirmed.
Friends close to Gaines say he was recovering from a lingering cough due to COVID-19, which he contracted at a July 24th show in Nevada City, CA. Initially, according to one of Zion I’s touring deejays, True Justice, Gaines was “recovering from COVID and had a severe asthma attack and his heart stopped. He died in the hospital. They were unable to revive him.” This information surfaced via a text message screenshot posted to Instagram Saturday. Yet, contrary reports emerged Sunday evening, confirming a homicide investigation opened by the Berkeley Police Department, after a physical altercation which may or may not have involved Gaines, staff and security at the Alta Bates hospital the early morning of his death. Details are few and the story is still developing.
The news came fresh off an August 4th, 20-year reunion fall tour announcement for the critically-acclaimed Mind Over Matter LP with Zion I co-creator Amp Live, adding salt to an already painful wound. The first of 13 illustrious studio albums produced by the ever-musically fluid artist and creator, 2000’s Mind Over Matter was nominated for ‘Independent Album of the Year’ by The Source. Did we mention the innumerable mixtapes and collaborations, with the likes of fellow lauded MCs The Grouch, Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli and the late Gift of Gab? Include features by Rebelution, Matisyahu, Goapele and Linkin Park (just to name a few) to the list and you’ve got yourself the ultimate musical journey to which there is no destination or requirements, except for allowing your inner light to shine.
Because, that’s the intersection of Gaine’s musical achievement and life’s work — inspiring listeners to be their best and live their truth.
After meeting Amp Live back in the early nineties as students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the duo briefly formed a group they named Meta Four and signed to iconic independent record label Tommy Boy before both relocating to Zumbi’s hometown of Oakland. Once in the Bay, Zion I formed in 1996 and the group went on to create multiple internationally celebrated albums and tour the nation together for over 20 years.
An indelible mark was left on your soul if you had the privilege of meeting Gaines on one of those many tours, shows and festivals. Everyone has their own story about his kindness, his humility, his utter and complete devotion to being the best father he could. Tale after tale of his passionate stage presence, his deep conviction to making music that mattered and his endless commitment to his community has surfaced of late. Countless recollections of that one time someone met him on tour and was left awestruck with the way he carried himself or how he treated and spoke to the people around him. Have a favorite memory of your own? Drop it in the comments for us.
A scholarship fund has been established for Gaines’ three sons and can be found here.
Remembering Zumbi of Zion I:
Photography by Brian Yuen & Jenny Martinez