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Emceeing involves more than just standing on a stage and going through a predetermined setlist of songs. A “Master of Ceremonies,” a.k.a. an “MC,”  hypes up a crowd, commands a room and leads by example. And perhaps most importantly, there is no façade: The connection between the MC and an audience is based on a shared experience, a coexistence in a particular space. A realness.

And to many, Baba Zumbi was an MC in the truest sense in that he personified the qualities it takes to “own” the title of MC, both onstage and in his personal life.

“He actually wrote about what was going on in his life and what he did in his life, and it was all real,” Bang Data MC/vocalist Deuce Eclipse explains. “There was never any fakeness to it.”

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Steve Gaines, known to the Bay Area hip-hop community and beyond as Baba Zumbi, died on Aug. 13 of this year at age 49. As the circumstances of his death are still being investigated, those who knew Zumbi and fans of his music are mourning the loss of the prolific Oakland-based MC, who, along with Amp Live, comprised the well-known group Zion I.

On Sunday evening, a tribute event was streamed on the YouTube channel for Sway’s Universe. The nearly-three-hour broadcast, held in an Oakland venue, featured fellow musicians, collaborators and friends of Zumbi, such as J.Period, DJ Twelvz, Deuce Eclipse, Amp Live and The Grouch. It was originally planned as an in-person event at Oakland’s Brooklyn Basin, but organizers made a last-minute decision to hold the event virtually because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It turned out to be a really beautiful event,” Deuce Eclipse says. “It was a way to honor him and his music and his legacy and to share his life with his fans and his friends.”

At the virtual celebration of Steve “Baba Zumbi” Stevens’ life, a beautiful mural depicting his face was hung in the rear of the stage. The backdrop presented the effect of Zumbi being with those who spoke about him and performed music at the tribute event on Sunday. (Screenshot J.L. Odom/Bay City News)

For fans, it was an opportunity to pay their respects to an artist they cherished, to listen to statements from those who knew him personally and to attend a dedication concert, albeit online, during which DJs spun Zion I records and MCs performed songs they had recorded with Zumbi. 

Those watching the livestream, numbering nearly 1,000 at one point, participated by posting comments that conveyed their gratitude. As YouTube user Kayla Miller wrote, “Thank you 4 everything Zumbi. Your music was the soundtrack to my high school years (and beyond) + was my first introduction to underground hip hop. I love you, your soul will forever live on.”

For family and friends, it was the chance to articulate how much Zumbi meant to them, whether through a statement or music. The Grouch, of the hip-hop group Living Legends, expressed his appreciation for Zumbi while onstage: “He was a bright light, and that’s evident. I thank him for being in my life to help me be a better man and to write more positive lyrics.”

On Zion I’s iconic 2005 song “The Bay,” Zumbi’s rhymes pay tribute to Bay Area culture.

Deuce noted that Zumbi had that effect on a lot of people: He inspired them to be better and to appreciate life. “Every single time that I performed with this guy, it was something special,” he says. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most: his energy in my life on every level, as a friend, as a performer onstage.” 

During the livestream, Deuce performed a song he and Zumbi co-wrote titled “Back to Life.” Though it was somewhat of a surreal experience for him to take the stage without his best friend, he was honored to participate in the event. 

Plus, the song itself was important to share during this challenging time. Deuce says, “Right now during the pandemic, everyone wants to get back to life, whatever that is to them. To us, back to life is just like, I want to breathe again. I want to do better; I want to get back to the life that I know I have to live.”

Through his music, Zumbi will surely continue to exist as an influential MC for those who listen to his lyrics and learn more about his life experiences in doing so.

A recording of Sunday’s Celebration for Zumbi

To contribute to the scholarship fund for Zumbi’s three children, go here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/in-remembrance-of-steve-zumbi-gaines