“I don’t want to compromise my vision of hip hop or myself… there is always a social consciousness to what I do”—Zion I
Recently, Above Average Hip Hop had the opportunity to speak with MC Zion I, AKA Zumbi, about his first album as a solo artist The Labyrinth. Zion I maintains an optimistic message in his music, promoting a progressive outlook on social and economic issues. Lyrically his subject matter emphasizes the importance of respect and loving yourself in addition to promoting self- awareness.
Zion I’s first solo debut features MCs Deuce Eclipse and Codnay Holiday; but, what can be said about the production? Ariano, Mikos the Gawd, Teeko, and Decap help Zumbi transform The Labyrinth into a masterpiece. The Oakland-based rapper also told Above Average Hip Hop a bit about his next project and upcoming collaborations. He also shared some personal details about the night is father passed and how he coped with the stress. Listening to Zion I is an empowering and uplifting experience, and now Above Average Hip Hop brings that experience to you with The Labyrinth.
How do you develop your subject matter?
I’ve always related to music that has had a message. I liked Bob Marley when I was young and U2 in their early years. I used to listen to punk rock like the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. Also Run D.M.C back in the day! That kind of music just left a mark on me. I’ve always wanted to say something. When I think back to all the knowledge I have gained from Public Enemy and KRS-ONE, I think about how those guys made me feel proud of who I was when I was younger. Being Black in America is not always easy, and those guys made it seem cool to be Black. I fed on that, and that is my perception of what hip hop and a part of what hip hop is about. That empowering aspect of helping people, I think that is central to the culture.
How did you come to develop the character Zumbi?
I don’t think of Zumbi as a character. I was studying Capoeira, and through my studies, I learned about Zumbi. He is a historical figure from Brazil. He was the last leader of the Quilombos, which is a freed community for slaves. Anybody who wanted to live outside the slave regime, would go and live in these Quilombos. He was the leader of the biggest one in Brazil. So I took the name Zumbi to represent my integrity and morals. I don’t want to compromise my vision of hip hop or myself. With hip hop in this era, people will pay you to kind of act stupid. They will pay you to degrade women and act violent and to say that you sell dope in your community. People don’t want to pay you to say that you have a godly spirit, or that you are strong and intelligent. That is not as sexy as – I’ll blow your fucking head off, and I’ll snatch your bitch – you know what I’m saying? The name helps me stand strong to what I believe in.
You speak a lot about gentrification going on in San Francisco with your last single “Tech $.” What can you tell me about it?
I made a video for it. You can bear witness to my family and I moving out of our house. I bought a crib in West Oakland, which is the hood and traditionally the Black and Mexican area, but it’s the closest point to San Francisco. So it’s kind of like ground zero for gentrification. I bought a house there in 2007, at the top of the real-estate market. In 2008, the market crashed, and my house was worth 35 to 40 percent of what I put forth. So it was a pretty bad situation. And then I had a baby who had Eczema. I just made the decision that I needed to get out of this house for my child’s wellbeing. So I ended up moving to East Oakland.
After two years of living there, the landlord informed me that he had to sell the house. So when I went out to look for housing and places to rent, I was shocked because within two years the prices had doubled. That is what prompted me to research what was going on in the community. I found out that there was this big wave of gentrification sweeping through Oakland. It’s changing the fabric of what this city is about, which is good and bad I think! It’s good to have more industry and more business here, but it’s also bad when it’s kicking out people that have been here their whole life. So I wanted to take a chance to tell my story. It ended up working out! Most people could relate to it.
Now you have your first full-length album The Labyrinth with songs like “Let Me Be” Which talks about the current state of Black America. What is your take on Black Lives Matter?
I think it’s always been like this for us in the country and that technology has made it more painfully obvious. But I also think that it is strange that when a black man is killed by the police, it is broadcasted on every news station. I don’t see them do that when White people or Latinos get shot by the police. When a Black man gets killed by a police officer, it’s about marketing and promoting. But it seems very strange to me how the media is marketing it to us! I find that when I talk about my experience as an African-American in this country, people who don’t have that same experience try to deny my reality. I’d like there to be more awareness across the board.
I feel like when you bring up racism to white folks, they feel like you are pointing the finger directly at them. They get very defensive. But there is always a social consciousness to what I do, and it surprises me when it goes over people’s heads. Maybe I don’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes, but that doesn’t deny the fact that there is oppression going on in this country. For example, when I see Standing Rock and I see Natives protesting for their land, I feel for them. I feel like, this is fucked up! More of the same shit, fuck people we want the business to survive.
The Labyrinth is a contemplative revelation of sorts, most notably in the song “Not Ur Fault.” It was written the night your father passed. What can you tell me about it?
The night my father died, I couldn’t sleep. So around 3:30 in the morning, I got up and went down to my studio. When I heard the beat for “Not Ur Fault” it spoke to me. I spoke to the producer about it later, and he told me that he wrote it for his mother. So that was a trip! I recorded it the next day because I was just crying so much, I couldn’t get through the song. It was just a way for me to pay homage to my dad because he did a great job raising us! I didn’t know how an exceptional father he was until I got out in the world. So writing that song was a good way for me to honor him!
Is there anything out there that you want your fans to know?
I’ve got another project with DJ Fresh that is coming out next year called “The Tonight Show.” I have another project with The Grouch and Eli that is probably going to be out next year. I also have a project with iamlocksmith. We are probably going to do like an EP. He is one of my favorite MC’s from the day. He’s super dope! If you’re into the music, please check me out on Spotify and Bandcamp!