After musician’s death at a Berkeley hospital, fundraiser honors Zumbi

Steve “Zumbi” Gaines, who lived in Oakland, died at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley early Friday morning following a physical struggle with staff.

Steve “Zumbi” Gaines and his three sons. Courtesy: Community Loves Zumbi/GoFundMe

Loved ones and fans of Steve “Zumbi” Gaines have raised more than $125,000 to create a scholarship fund for Gaines’ sons following the musician’s death at a Berkeley hospital on Friday.

There has been an outpouring of support for Gaines, an Oakland father of three who helped found the critically acclaimed hip-hop project Zion I more than two decades ago. Gaines, who was 48, is survived by his three sons and his partner Millaray Rodriguez Avila, according to the Zion I Instagram page and GoFundMe.

“A prolific vocalist, emcee, performer, poet, and community activist, Zumbi was dedicated to the betterment of his community in every way through his words and actions,” fundraiser organizers wrote. “And even with his overabundance of talent, his true passion and purpose was the love and energy he put into his three sons.”

The cause of Gaines’ death has not been determined and official details have been limited, in part because of medical privacy laws and also because a death investigation by Berkeley police detectives is ongoing.


According to Officer Byron White, the spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department, BPD got numerous calls Friday just after 5:15 a.m. from patients and staff at Alta Bates who were reporting a physical struggle between a patient and “numerous nurses and security staff inside the hospital.”

White said arriving officers found the patient pinned down by security staff. Officers started to handcuff the man but stopped when they realized he needed immediate medical assistance. Officers then “began life-saving measures until Alta Bates staff were able to take over,” White said.

According to emergency radio traffic reviewed by Berkeleyside, police performed CPR on Gaines, who was recovering from COVID-19, when they found him near the fourth-floor elevators at Alta Bates.

Their efforts were unsuccessful, however, and Gaines was pronounced dead at the hospital.

According to White, BPD alerted the Alameda County District Attorney’s office about the incident. The DA’s office determined that police did not use force on the patient, he said, and did not classify the matter as an in-custody death.

As of Tuesday, police had not released Gaines’ name, though his family and friends have shared it widely. BPD cited medical privacy laws and the ongoing investigation as the reasons for the decision.

On Tuesday, the Alameda County coroner’s office said it could not comment due to a press hold on the case.

A spokesperson for Sutter Health, which runs Alta Bates Hospital, said only that “Due to our compliance with state and federal privacy laws, we are unable to comment. Any questions regarding law enforcement should be directed to them.”

The spokesperson did not respond to requests for more detailed information about hospital security staff and whether they work for Summit or a third-party contractor.

According to friends and loved ones who spoke to The San Francisco Chronicle over the weekend, Gaines’ future looked bright. Zion I had just announced a reunion tour, according to the group’s Instagram page.

Friends described Gaines to the Chronicle as a devoted father who was committed to a philosophy of nonviolence. His family members asked for privacy to allow them to grieve.

On the GoFundMe page for the scholarship fund, testimonials have poured in expressing gratitude to Gaines for the inspiration and positivity of his music and lyrics.

“Zumbi was the best expression of the Bay, he spoke truth to power but always with grace. May we all carry his imparted wisdom on,” wrote Joyce Williams.

“Thank you for sharing your light Zumbi,” wrote Hillary Lehr. “You elevated the perspectives of so many. I learned so much from your words.”

According to the GoFundMe page, the money raised will be used to set up a scholarship fund for Gaines’ three sons.

“As with all movements to an ancestral plane, we will share our energy to cherishing the things they left behind,” the fundraiser organizers wrote. “And in this case, we are all blessed with his amazing catalog of music to help us grieve, uplift, and inspire our spirits. And to use his words, we know he would ask all of the Zion I Massive to ‘Qi Up’ and let your inner lights shine. We love you, Zumbi.”

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.