Baba Zumbi, whose real name was Stephen Gaines, died early Friday at Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley at the age of 49, possibly from complications related to COVID-19 — though police are also investigating an altercation he was allegedly involved in with hospital staff just before he died.
All Hop Hop reported over the weekend that Gaines, best known for his work in the group Zion I, had died from COVID complications. Friends confirmed to the Chronicle that Gaines was being treated for a COVID infection after he and dozens of others were infected during his last concert in Nevada City on July 24. But those friends say that Gaines, while he had asthma and a lingering cough and was distrustful of the vaccines, seemed to be in decent health the day before he died.
And the circumstances of the death are strange, raising concerns among his fans and family.
Berkeley police Lt. Melanie Turner tells the Chronicle that police responded to the hospital at 5:16 a.m. on Friday after a report of a physical altercation between a patient and both nurses and security staff. During the altercation, security staff had to detain the individual — presumably Gaines — and he was reportedly pinned down. When police arrived, Turner says, "officers started handcuffing the involved person and determined that he needed immediate medical assistance." He was then pronounced dead at the scene.
The Alameda County DA's Office has apparently already concluded that the Berkeley officers did not use any force in their actions.
There has been no explanation of how the altercation began, and musician and friend True Allah, a.k.a. True Justice, tells the Chronicle, "Steve was not a violent person; he never sought violence; he never condoned violence. However, I know as a person, I know Steve [was] very firm in his beliefs."
As Rolling Stone notes, Gaines initially rapped under the name Zion, and then teamed up with his longtime collaborator Amp Live after coming together at Morehouse College in the early 1990s. Zion I became a fixture in the Bay Area music scene, and produced seven critically acclaimed albums between 2000 and 2012.
Gaines was again in the news in 2016 when he released a track called "Tech $" that talked about his gentrification-related eviction from his family's Oakland home.
The Gaines family issued a statement saying, "Zumbi was a man of many talents and was blessed to be able to share his gifts and love of music, most importantly hip-hop, with the world. ... And even with his overabundance of talent, his true passion and purpose was the love and energy he put into his three sons."
But they added a note of concern about the circumstances of his death, saying to the Chronicle, "We are in a deep state of grief and processing this loss. We are awaiting further details from the hospital at this time so we can understand exactly what happened and determine our next steps."
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