With no gimmicks included, Oakland-based duo Zion I has established themselves prominently within the hip-hop community. By fusing together their special blend of high impact hip-hop, avant-garde jazz and electronica, the two talented musicians behind Zion I have concocted one hell of live act — an act so innovative that Talib Kweli and Aesop Rock have collaborated with them. Now, after releasing their 6th studio album, “The Takeover,” the duo is finding a groundswell of new fans.
The State Press recently caught up with one half of the duo, the spiritually tuned MC Zumbi, to discuss topics ranging from artistic expression to his “metaphysical” practices.
SP: I just caught your stellar performance at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe. What has your experience on tour been like, being the only hip-hop group among all reggae acts? Zumbi: It’s been an amazing reception across the board. At times, the audience was a bit shocked because we come out hard right away. It’s a reggae show and they may be expecting something a bit mellower. But once we get the energy flowin’ and they sink into the vibe … the stage is set. This tour is evidence that positive energy goes across genres and styles. The way we rock varies, but the eeriness of it all kind of glues everything together. It’s a beautiful thing.
SP: Your lyrics and subject matter are filled with positive messages of change. What motivates you to speak out on these topics, which are often at odds with the kind of hip-hop the radio generally plays? Zumbi: I speak this way because it’s how I feel about life. I enjoy life and make it a point to celebrate it every day. It just shows through in the music, but this is an all-day, every day process. I know we are lucky to be alive in this highly energized and transformative moment. I want to play my part in helping along the evolution of human consciousness. Really, for me, I believe that music is one of the ways I can contribute to that. As far as radio, that in no way determines the true state of hip-hop. We are a culture, not a commercial playlist. I used to get frustrated by the presentation of hip-hop through the media, but these days I just focus on the things I’m doing. It just feels way better that way
SP: Many people have different interpretations of the word “art.” What does the word mean to you? Zumbi: Art for me is simply expression in its purest form. It is allowing the deep well of unconscious energy to pour through one’s self in [infinite] ways. Art for me is a broad term, and can be music, film, fashion, lifestyle and language. Art is our way of imitating the great creative force that governs the universe. The creator is oneness, and we are all a part of that one.
SP: How did the city of Oakland influence and cultivate your musical style and worldview? Zumbi: In Oakland, [rapper] Too Short has always been a major influence of mine, since the mid ’80s. He really taught me about bass, 808’s and real slap. Then, the eclecticism of Oakland steps in. Oakland’s rep is one of a hardened blue-collar city, but we have an incredible artistic scene representing varied styles. On the West Coast, styles from around the globe fuse and create newness. The socio-political history of resistance is also deeply rooted here. I was brought up to know myself, my history and to care for my community. Oakland is also one of the most diverse cities in the country. The rich flavor of Asia, Latin America, Pacific Islands, the Middle East and the American South mix together here on a regular basis.
SP: What kind of feeling do you want to instill in fans young and old when they listen to your music? Zumbi: I want people to feel inspired first and foremost. Whether that’s just to dance or to reflect on life, or to help them get through a tough moment in life, we are here to help in any way we can. That’s what music has always done for me so I’m here to give back.
SP: How important is your spirituality to the music you create and perform? Zumbi: Music is an aspect of my spirituality. The Sufis say that music is the most direct path to enlightenment. Through music, I am better able to tune my mind and body to where I want to go in this life. Jah is always present in the work that I do, and for that I am forever grateful.
SP: During your performance at the Marquee, you said how Zion I partakes in various “metaphysical” acts. Do you care to elaborate more on what these are and their importance? Zumbi: (Laughs.) Well, I love that part of the show, because it’s very personal to me. The main one would be meditation. I’ve been meditating for around 15 years now and I feel that it’s one of the last true jewels that can help us to fix ourselves before we destroy the planet. It helps me to focus, to sink deep into my breath and to connect with my spirit. I recommend meditation for everyone. I also practice yoga and Qigong. All of these practices take me beyond the humdrum programming of material existence. There is much more to life than making money and looking cool to others, you know? What about how we feel about ourselves? These practices help me get in tune with myself.
SP: If you could preach anything to open-minded students of ASU, what would it be? Zumbi: To practice truly loving one’s self. Where there is love, darkness can no longer stand.
Zion I is currently supporting touring in support of “The Takeover,” which is available now. The band is offering free downloads on its Web site at zioncrew.com/download.
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