Zion I: “Hip Hop Is About Empowerment.”

Zion I Talks Vaping, Fatherhood, Systematic Oppression in Hip Hop and More

Zion I has been a staple to the independent underground hip hop world since the first album Mind Over Matter in 2000. Since the first release Zion I’s positive intellectual lyricism and innovative vibrant production has created a discography of more than 2 dozen remarkably crafted albums, mixtapes, EP’s with distinct collaborations. Originally consisting of MC Zumbi and producer Amp Live, Zumbi is now flying solo. RIZE Entertainment sat down with Zumbi and talked about everything from Yung Thug to how his cannabis use has changed since he became a parent.


RIZE Entertainment: From the beginning Zion I has kept a certain level of positivity and stayed away from the top 40 “Bitches, Hoes & Money” persona. Why is this important to you?

Zion I: For me, Hip Hop and art, in general, is all about authenticity.  What I enjoy about experiencing the writing, visual art, or singing of other artists is the unique window and perspective which they bring to this reality that we share.  I’ve never been a “bitches hoes and clothes” type of dude, so why would I present that in my music?  A lot of MC’s don’t believe in that either, but succumb to what I feel are the false tenets of the culture so they can gain popularity and make some dough. Inauthentic.

Now, there are some folks who really vibe that way, I find no fault in their expression.  Hip Hop is about empowerment in my opinion.  When it was created, that was the strongest impression that it left on me… so I seek to pay homage to what it gave me. Culture and art are incredibly powerful and influential, we have to be mindful of that power.

RIZE: You mention Young Thug’s dismissive response about Ferguson in the recent Boombox Collection video series and you responded “what about the issues, family, protecting our communities, not being exploited, not being manipulated…” Who do you think is really making music that speaks to those values of family and community in the hip hop world right now? Do you feel as though comments like Young Thug’s are detrimental to those values?

Zion I: I feel like J Cole, LeCrae and Kendrick are really holding that space on the commercial side.  Of course, there’s Run the Jewels and a slew of more underground artists who hold it down on a more grassroots level.  I feel like people want that vibe in the music, but a certain aspect of society would rather see the tragic caricature that consumes many of us: drugs, violence, and criminality.  All of it is real, the good and the bad, but I feel like the negativity is played up as a way to compartmentalize people of color and Hip Hop in general.  It’s like it’s easier to believe that all young Black men would rather sell dope, than to believe that these same young men want to do something positive with their lives.

It’s disappointing to me when cats like Young Thug who have the platform to really influence change, blow it off because they are already placated by fly cars and clothes.  It sometimes feels like the brilliant minds that come from our communities are being paid off to play stupid, as if they don’t recognize the systematic oppression that is the United States.  That is why I truly respect those in the limelight who are willing to sacrifice their personal gain for the good of the greater collective. The game is already set up, the board is laid out, now… do we choose to play or do we change the rules?

RIZE: The end of the first verse off of Trains & Planes on Heros in the City of Dope goes, “I miss my bed, marijuana, and mushrooms/They treat me hella bad when I’m sittin’ in customs” Marijuana has really has become a staple of hip hop in many ways. Visually lyrically and culturally it is very present. Is this how you were first exposed to marijuana? Would you say your first experience was a good one? Tell me about that.

Zion I: My first experience with weed was with my skater homies back in the day.  Back then some MC’s encouraged it, like KRS One. “I step into the party with a spliff of sense, down with the sound called BDP!” But others like Dr. Dre in “Express Yourself” discouraged its usage “…no I don’t smoke weed or sess, cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage, and brain damage on the mic don’t manage nothing, but making a sucka and you equal.” It was a background message in Hip Hop in the 80’s, nothing like the full-frontal campaign it is today.

My first experience was in the 7th grade, when a few of my homies and some girls from our school went swimming at a friend’s pool in his apartment complex.  We passed the bowl a few times and I remember feeling a little giddy and slightly lightheaded.  We even got out of the pool and hot-boxed in the bathroom.  I came to later find out that I wasn’t really even high at all.  I would say it was a cool experience, very calm and innocent in a way.

RIZE: As both a smoker and a parent, have you found that the frequency or type of consumption has changed?

Zion I: Great question. My consumption has changed dramatically.  First off, as the father of 3, I don’t really have time to be sleepy, unmotivated, or lagging in the least bit.  Every morning is an early one at the crib, my two-year-old is up by 7 or 7:30 pretty much every day no matter what.  That said, I used to spend weeks faded off of my vaporizer.  With each additional child, my consumption has become less and less. Nowadays, I don’t smoke or use the vaporizer, except on rare occasions.  My lungs feel way better now that I don’t smoke at all and I can work out longer and harder.  I still dabble with edibles and oils when I can carve out some time to enjoy the vibes. It has made me more conscientious of my usage.  I usually indulge when I’m with my lady and we have some time away from the kids.

As per condoning for my children, I know that they are going to run into it eventually.  By the time they are in their teens we will have a sit down and discuss it.  They will be able to make their own decisions in life, I feel like it’s my job to help them prepare and give them proper guidance so they can do what’s best for themselves.  I want them to realize that it’s cool to experience life, but you can’t let anything outside of yourself control you or impede your progress.

Zion I
Zion I – Photo by: Joe Campbell

RIZE: The Labyrinth came out in October of last year which turned out to be an album that helped you get through the loss of family members and the loss, in a sense of your partner and producer, Amp Live. Now that you and Amp are working separately, do you see Zion I’s future sound changing in a drastic way? Who are some producers you haven’t able to work with that you would like to?

Zion I: True indeed. That album was very difficult to finish because it was hard for me to move thru all the grief which I was stricken with.  One of my best friends, Lateef passed away first. Next, my grandmother passed away a few months later. Then, my father passed away a few months after that. Looking back, I don’t know how I got thru it all.  My head was constantly spinning and my thoughts were ragged and unfocused. In addition to all of that, I had to find a new way to make music with new producers. One thing I can say is that the experience made me much stronger.

I don’t think Zion I’s sound will change much because Zion I’s sound palette has always changed album to album.  I just need to make music from the heart and I know that I will continue to be blessed.

RIZE: If you could vibe and smoke with anyone, dead or alive, what strain would you choose, who would it be and why?

Zion I: It would have to be Robert Nesta Marley.  I think I would choose Blue Dream because it always gives me energy and creative thoughts.  I would want to sit and build with Bob about the power of music and the fusion of spirituality and art.  For me, he is a role model, inspiration, and spiritual guide in many ways.  Once I experienced his music fully, I knew what path I was going to take musically. I know that blazing with the Tuff Gong would be mindblowing!

Luna Reyna

Luna Reyna (she/ella) is the founder of RIZE Entertainment. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering and amplifying the work and voices of systematically excluded within the arts. She believes that art is vital for revolutionary practice and movements and hopes that RIZE can be an instrument for amplifying art that expresses the conditions of an unjust society and facilitates healing.