“Damn, this is getting crazy for Oakland,” says Zumbi minutes before his group Zion I performs a soundcheck at Berbati’s Pan in Portland, Oregon. Like so many Yay Area residents, the veteran hip hop artist is concerned about the terrifying rise in confrontations between local police officers and residents – a trend that arguably resulted in the January 1 murder of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by a BART police officer; and the March 21 killing of four city police officers by Lovelle Mixon, who shot the cops (and was subsequently killed himself) in a vain attempt to evade arrest for a probation violation.
The two incidents drew national attention, and led to riots and protests in Oakland. Zumbi’s response came in the form of “Cops Hate Kidz,” an Internet track he recorded with the Are, a producer out of Houston best known for his work with K-Otix. (Not coincidentally, K-Otix made waves in 2005 with “George Bush Don’t Like Black People,” a remix of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” that excorciated the former president’s lame response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.) Released straight to the Internet under the guise of the Burnerz, “Cops Hate Kidz” bears a deliberately provocative title. But the song itself is reasoned and anguished, taking note of both sides – pro-law-enforcement and a community that feels it is under siege – before calling for a solution. It’s an approach that Zumbi feels compelled to take.
“I understand why people are saying fuck the police, those guys died,” he says in reference to Mixon’s deadly firefight with Oakland law enforcement. “But it’s not my sentiment personally. My thing is about people and community, and we’re all God’s children. We’re all here. All of our lives count equally.”
Zion I is currently on tour in support of its new album, The Take Over. But the first half of my interview delves into Zumbi’s feelings about what has already been a tumultuous year for his hometown. In part two, which I’ll post tomorrow, Zumbi discusses The Take Over, which has drawn decidedly mixed reviews, the difference between East Coast fans and West Coast fans, and forthcoming musical projects such as the Burnerz album. Meanwhile, you can download a copy of “Cops Hate Kidz” at the bottom of the page.
(May 2 update: A link to part two of my interview with Zumbi has been added.)
Plug One: Explain how the song “Cops Hate Kidz” came about.
Zumbi: For one, I live in Oakland. Just bearing witness to the whole Oscar Grant situation – I was down at the protests, and there was a lot of us from the hip hop community out there, and just the overwhelming sentiment of being so emotional and passionate – and then seeing the riots and everything. I went downtown and got some footage myself. I’ve never seen Oakland, California like that. This is, like, January into early February.
Just seeing all that, and having that feeling, and going to all these meetings, and feeling like we weren’t really saying anything. Mehserle is still not charged with anything. He didn’t stay in jail but for half a night or something.
Plug One: Wait – I thought he has been indicted for murder.
Zumbi: So he did get indicted? I’m not sure. I’m asking.
Plug One: Yeah, he’s been indicted. Then he was obviously bailed out.
Zumbi: So when did he get indicted? Is he going to jail?
Plug One: When they indict you, that just means that they’ve charged you. And then he pleaded not guilty.
Zumbi: So you’re saying that they have to figure out exactly what the charge is.
Plug One: Well, there was a pretrial hearing scheduled for [March 22], and then the day before it was scheduled to take place, Lovelle Mixon shot the four cops. So they moved it to May 18.
Zumbi: So, basically, what I’m saying is that it doesn’t seem like there’s been a conclusion to that situation yet. So, like you said, even though he’s been indicted, it still feels like we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet with this dude. He could get a light charge, he could get a heavy charge – it’s up in the air.
And then, when the Lovelle Mixon stuff started happening, it was like, damn, this is getting crazy for Oakland. I’ve never seen it like that before. Man, it’s like so much activity with the police.
I live in West Oakland. I’m going to L.A. and coming home off tour, and I’m coming into the neighborhood and, like, within the first minute of driving into my neighborhood I see five policemen running down the street with the dog in the front, and the police officers are blocking the street so I can’t get to my house. Finally, I get to my block and I’m trying to pull into my house, and [the police] tried to cut me off. I’m like, dude, I’m going home. I live here. [The police officer] said, “Oh, I thought you were trying to pull around me.” Stuff like that. Then, just driving up 14th Street and seeing the whole block blocked off with police officers.
I just feel like the whole relationship between the community and the police is pushing to another level I’ve never witnessed before. Even [when I lived] in Atlanta during the Rodney King riots – people were actually rioting so the police were out in full force, I can see that. But right now, it just feels like it’s just getting hotter and hotter. It feels like there’s almost no end to it.
And the youth in Oakland really don’t care. There’s not that many jobs, people aren’t going to school. It’s just this sentiment of “I don’t give a fuck.” For me, it’s getting kind of scary.
So I was on Twitter, and one of my followers hit me up. He was, like, “Man, you should do a song about what’s going on in Oakland so I can post it on my blog.” And I was, like, hmm. I thought about it. And then I checked a post on my Facebook page and somebody made the same kind of comment. So I was, like, damn, I need to get on this.
I hit up the Are, who does all the production for the Burnerz. He was, like, “Yeah, I’m with that. Here in Houston, one of my little homies got shot. He pulled up in his driveway and the police stopped him a block away from his house. They said that his car was stolen. He was, like, man, I bought this car two years ago. It’s in my name. The guy’s mother comes out of the house to see what’s going on. They slam her up against the wall. The guy overreacts, jumps out of the car, and they shoot him in his back. So I have the same sentiment with the police right now.”
He made the track that night. I wrote [my rhymes] that night and recorded them the next day. And we just want to get it out and say something to the world. Just express the feeling that I know a lot of people have right now. But I didn’t want to make a song that was, like, fuck the police, because that’s too basic and simple an analysis of what’s going on right now. To say that is to invite more and more tension to what’s going on.
This song we wrote, it talks about that, but it also talks about the other side. The first verse is the police and their perspective. The second verse is from the perspective of a guy like Lovelle Mixon who doesn’t have anything, and who’s scared, and who’s like, “If I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out blasting.” The third verse is a summary saying that we need to change this system.
Also, another fuel for this was watching the memorial at the Oakland Coliseum, and seeing all the media attention and all the police from across the country come in and engage in this mass ritual. Even driving down interstate 880 and seeing all these billboards for the four police officers shot. Now, I care about human life, and I also care about lives that aren’t police. So I feel that if the police had expressed that same concern for Oscar Grant’s life by putting up a billboard for him, it would make the community feel better. But I feel like they hold their own above regular people. That’s one of the centrifuges of the battle going on between the community and the police.
So this song is dedicated to all of that, all of those energies wound up in one song.
Plug One: I’m glad you said that, because I was a little confused by the second verse where you seem to personify someone who’s shooting at cops. I’m glad that you explained that you were just trying to take two perspectives.
Zumbi: Yeah, I could see how it could be a little confusing. On one line I said, “I’m an assault rifle, call me trifle/But I’m just a product of the hate you made/Project buildings, government aid.” Just how that criminal mentality is fostered when society doesn’t care until it’s too late. Then they want to say, oh, you’re a criminal. But in the meantime, while you’re becoming criminalized, nobody’s offering you social services, coming to give you counseling, trying to make your school a better school if you live in an impoverished neighborhood. They just leave it until it gets too bad, and then they want to say, oh, this is a tragedy. But the tragedy is that society doesn’t really care while these things are building and festering, while these sores are growing and growing. Now pus is oozing everywhere and people are concerned about it.
In the Bay Area, both sides are heated over the Lovelle Mixon situation. On the one hand, you have people in Oakland who are sympathizing with Mixon. On the other side, people are saying, hey, this guy’s a cop killer, he shot four people, and all four of them died. Why are some people in Oakland showing support for him if he’s a killer?
It’s hard for me to speak on that because I don’t necessarily feel support for him. I understand where it comes from, but I’m not, like, yeah, he’s a hero. Some friends of mine are riding for him, acting as if this was some type of revolutionary action.
Plug One: Right. At a SXSW concert, dead prez was, like, “Hooray for him because he killed four cops.”
Zumbi: See, I don’t feel that way, man. I realize that these people are human beings. People make mistakes. They could have been crooked cops, but right now there’s no proof of that. But there is proof that Lovelle Mixon raped, like, six girls or something crazy like that? When I heard that information I was, like, damn, this is a crazy story.
There is no black and white in this. [I can’t say that the police are] infinitely evil and [Mixon] is infinitely good. I can’t look at it in that way. There’s too much gray area between what’s happening and what happened. So my position is to look at the system and how the system – the police, which represents the state – interacts with the community. I feel that if there was more outreach directed to the community about the Oscar Grant situation, then the community wouldn’t feel so wound up and uptight about the police. Like I said before, they celebrate the lives of these four police officers, but they didn’t seem remiss about Oscar Grant at all. So the treatment between the two [incidents] is confusing to me.
I understand why people are saying fuck the police, those guys died. But it’s not my sentiment personally. My thing is about people and community, and we’re all God’s children. We’re all here. All of our lives count equally. So how do we address the disproportionate treatment between the two, the police officers and the community?
Plug One: Who are some of the rappers that you saw at the January 7 protest at Fruitvale BART?
[Note: Oakland activists held a protest over Grant’s murder – which was widely documented by bystanders with cell phones, who subsequently posted videos of the shooting to YouTube — and the delayed response by city officials. The January 7 protest started peaceably, but later, a breakaway group marched a few miles to downtown Oakland and started a riot. Unfortunately, it was the riot that finally made Grant’s murder national news; beforehand, the incident was only covered by Bay Area media.]
Zumbi: Mistah F.A.B. was out there, Casual from Hiero, my partner Deuce Eclipse, Jennifer Johns, there were a couple of DJs. That’s it for now.
I was juiced when I saw Fab. This guy gets criticized for being “hyphy” and not caring, but he’s there when a lot of people who are supposed to be positive aren’t. To me, your actions speak a lot louder than your words. It was good to see a brother like that on the front lines, just representing for the people and showing concern.
Plug One: Were you at the protest that turned into a riot?
Zumbi: I was at the earlier one, and I remember that halfway through [the Fruitvale BART protest] a guy got on the mike and said, “We’re going to march this way.” I’d say about a quarter of the crowd bounced, including a lot of the younger people in attendance. They all walked off. And we stayed [at the BART station] for maybe an hour more. It ended around 6:30 p.m.
I got a text message around 7:30 p.m., and my homie’s like, “Hey man, are you downtown? Are you okay?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m cool. What’s going on?” And he was, like, “Because they’re rioting downtown.” So I went down there with my camera to check it out.
I wasn’t really a part of it. I saw [radio host and journalist] Davey D, a bunch of independent journalists, people with cameras, as well as anarchists and a lot of young black kids running around. It was strange to me, because I’ve been in a riot situation before, and this one had a different tone. It felt like a lot of teenagers watching other people do stuff, and then following and imitating their behavior. I felt like there were a lot of people documenting the situation, but there wasn’t any leadership in the situation.
Plug One: Considering that there are so many activists and positive people in the East Bay, why is there a vacuum of leadership there? I think you referenced that in “Cops Hate Kidz” when you talked about the Governator [California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger] and [current Oakland mayor and civil rights legend] Ron Dellums. It seems like that trend is part of Oakland’s recent history, even going back to [former Oakland mayor] Jerry Brown. People are looking for ways to make money off Oakland, but there’s no leadership in terms of trying to find solutions for the community’s problems.
Zumbi: We had a lot of hope for Ron Dellums coming in and changing the situation. I’ve talked to a lot of the homies about this, including [journalist] Adisa Banjoko and Davey D. We’re waiting for Dellums to do something. He’s primed and ready. This situation is happening. But it feels like he hasn’t taken the reins at all. He’s from West Oakland. He, if anybody, should know the architecture of the land and the mentality of the people. At the least, he should be able to connect with them on some level. And I don’t think he’s made enough effort to reach out to the youth.
It’s easy. Even if he were to get a Mistah F.A.B., a Zion I, a Lyrics Born, E-40 or Too Short to try and reach conduits between him and the youth and be, like, “Guys, I really need some help on this, let’s organize around this situation and have a community forum.” Because I don’t think he could have necessarily stopped what has happened, but I think there’s a better way to interact with the youth.
I’m not really sure why Oakland is struggling in this way. We had a lot of leadership back in the 60s with the Panthers and that whole movement, but [the system] chopped off [the movement’s] heads. So maybe people are scared of that. Maybe people are trying to find a new way to resist. Maybe people have been so dumbed down that, now that there’s this tragedy, it’s more of a reactive response, because there’s not necessarily an organized system to deal with these things.
It’s a good question. I’m not really sure why it is the way it is. I just know that there’s a lot of youth that can easily be led astray by a lot of this rhetoric that’s being put across in terms of…I don’t want to see a bunch of Lovelle Mixons in Oakland, California. It’s not going to be a happy scene for young people who pick up guns and create war on the police. That’s not going to be cool. So I’m thinking of ways to get the word out and have people think about it in a different way.
The Burnerz, “Cops Hate Kidz”