In the video for Zion I’s “Tech $,” Baba Zumbi raps into the camera while his family packs up their Oakland house behind him. They’re moving to San Leandro — his landlord sold the property, and nearby leases were too exorbitant. They were forced out, and just like that, the all-too-familiar consequences of gentrification and involuntary moves hit home for the rapper. In response, he did what an artist does: create.
“I didn’t know this many people would relate to it,” Zumbi says of the attention the video received. “I didn’t know it would be so newsworthy.”
But though the song’s story is a familiar one, the response was nonetheless compassionate. People were moved by its honest portrayal of the effect of the tech boom on artists. It was a reverberation he says caught him off guard.
“I guess it’s surprising because it’s something we all talk about all the time — me and my friends, and the people I know — like ‘Wow, how this changed,’ and ‘This part of the city is so different,’” he says. “It’s like common knowledge.”
The city of Oakland wasn’t like this ten years ago, when Zumbi, former partner Amp Live, and Living Legends rapper The Grouch released Heroes in the City of Dope. The album, which Bay Area natives have come to consider a classic in the local rap canon, portrayed Oakland with all its complexities. It was a story of Oaktown as told by some of its own sages, who defined their home by recognizing its multifold temperaments: its home-cooked ethos and its publicized vices; its warmth and its desperation; and the friction between the inherent Apollonian and Dionysian ways of living.
But today, Zumbi’s far away from that place, if just mentally. He’s preparing to leave the Bay for a tour, and right now, he’s looking back on the city that brought him up.
“A lot has happened. I don’t work with Amp Live anymore. I left my management, I left my booking. I had to move out of the city, my father passed away,” he says. “It’s a different segment of life. In terms of Oakland, to me it will always be the birthplace of my music, and just embracing the culture. That won’t go away. But Oakland itself is changing so drastically, I have to take a look at it and be honest.”
Zumbi has two sons now with another on the way, and though Oakland is different, it was still difficult to leave. “I was imagining it was going to be so great to raise them in Oakland, all this culture, and all the diversity here, all these different kinds of people, all these vibes,” he says. “You have the eccentrics, the artists, the revolutionaries, the players. I look at it now and feel like a corporate identity is coming in, this middle America energy with the tech boom and it’s just hard to stomach.”
He watched, like many other longtime locals have been, as the city in which he had wanted to raise his kids was gentrifying, homogenizing, with generations of culture fading into an undesirable tabula rasa, without much regard for those who made the city so eclectic, and worse, without much regard for the children born there.
Talking about his “first exposure to the tech world,” Zumbi realized the opportunity being missed by local tech companies to engage with the local youth in a meaningful, sustainable way.
“I know there’s hacker schools and crash courses where they teach you [coding]in a couple months, but they’re very expensive and I don’t see anything that’s for the benefit of the community,” he says. “That’s what I mean when I talk about ‘empowering’ [on ‘Tech $’]. You have a lot of brilliant people here…The Bay Area has always been cutting edge, so why not encourage these youths to get involved? Why not change the paradigm, so instead of it being all white males, it’s colorful just like the Bay Area is colorful?”
With the exception of Pandora, which he says is making visible hiring efforts to make connections in Oakland, Zumbi adds that not enough is being done to support the well-being of the community. “It’s not a communal vibe right now,” he adds. “It’s more like, ‘I’m trying to get paid right now. It may dry up soon, I’m trying to get it right now before it goes away.’”
In part to combat this dissonance, Zumbi suggests we follow the lead of other enterprising economies in pursuing financially lucrative legislation, like, for example, Colorado’s legalization of marijuana in 2014.
“We have fruitful ventures happening in the Bay Area that should be going down to the youth,” he says, mentioning the tax revenue windfall that raised $35 million for public schools in the Western state. “That’s amazing — that’s a great use of progressive measures to make sure the kids are getting taken care of. The Bay Area should be doing the same thing.”
But the city also needs to look inward to identify its own shortcomings, too. Calling out Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, who he says is mishandling the OPD scandal and is making “cushy” deals with tech companies, Zumbi says the city must do more to protect the safety and well-being of its own.
“Now that [Oakland’s] the hot place to be, with how wack the leadership is — they don’t care about the African Americans, the Latinos, southeast Asians in the city,” he says. “It’s just like… let’s make it cushy for middle white America and get that money.”
But despite the odds stacked up against it, the rapper doesn’t seem to have any doubts that Oakland will pull itself together, because “when something goes wrong, people talk about it and they go out into the streets.”
“The people are so vocal,” he adds. “The home of the Black Panthers, the hippie movement… Occupy Movement was strong here, the medical marijuana movement. It’s a special place, and I don’t want it to go away that easily. It seems like we gotta fight for it. It seems only right that Oakland would have to fight for its