Arrive at the corner of Oakland’s Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard and you will hear the sounds of eclectic music emerging from multiple spots along Lake Merritt.
Aaron Davis Warren, otherwise known as “Drummer Boy Aaron,” set up his drum set just before 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday to play for the crowd that comes from all directions. The 18-year-old pounds his drumsticks as he smiles widely at his growing audience. To his right, people carrying mushrooms and cabbage emerge from the farmer’s market under the highway, and stop in front of his set up. On his left, athletic men exercise on the park’s muscle bars to the beat of Warren’s drums.
Warren is a regular on this corner and calls drumming his “first love.” He’s been playing the drums since he was 2 years old, and he’s been playing at Lake Merritt since March. Some of his audience members bring children around that age, and sometimes he puts them in his lap to pique their curiosity.
“I just come out here and practice,” he said. “I play in front of the park, I want to inspire kids and do something good.”
But not everyone is entertained.
On a recent Saturday, a woman handed Aaron a yellow notepaper and told him she was calling the police. Part of it read “annoying noises,” but Warren didn’t bother reading all of it. He tossed the paper aside and continued drumming. When he did, he said, the woman then knocked Warren’s cymbal down, denting it in the process. He should play in a studio, she told bystander Tram Nguyen. There are plenty of paying jobs like dishwashing and waiting tables that black youth like Warren should aim for, Nguyen said she added. Nguyen posted the incident on Facebook and the post went viral.
Warren was feeling forgiving. “I just thank God that I kept my anger and kept it professional,” he said.
More than 100 people came by on Saturday to listen to Warren’s music in an outpouring of support that surprised even Warren. In addition to a larger audience, musicians from Loco Bloco and Samba Funk also joined him. “That’s love. I really appreciate it,” Warren said. “I am truly blessed and I can’t thank them enough.”
Dolores Payne of East Oakland brought her lawn chair and sat to watch Warren perform. “This is the beat of Africa, our heartbeat,” she said. “If it bothers the neighbors, fuck them.”
Across from where Warren plays his drums, businesses were lined up with open doors awaiting customers. Warren’s music carried at a low level into neighborhood spas and restaurants.
Devin Parro at Davis Saiz Salon loves the music. Originally from New Orleans, he called it a taste of home.“People come here for Oakland’s character,” he said. “But when they get here, they bitch about it.”
“The only complaint I have is that the music can be repetitive,” said James Lee at Young’s One Hour Dry Cleaners.
Warren said Oakland police officers told him that as long as he doesn’t use an amplifier to raise volume, he is permitted to play at the park. But Warren did plan to use an amplifier in the future.
“It’s a musical area,” he said. “There are other people playing that can overpower me.”
Warren said that while a marching band was practicing the day the woman damaged his cymbal, no other park performers were approached about causing noise. In fact, no one else complained to Warren about his drumming. The Lakeview Branch Library is nestled only a few hundred feet behind where Warren and others perform, but Saturday’s crowd said they didn’t mind the music.
Controversies about park usage are nothing new at Lake Merritt, according to Hoang Banh, neighborhood services coordinator for the City of Oakland. Since Oakland’s Measure DD expanded the park in 2013, more performers have come by to play. “Because of the new space, there needs to be a discussion about its use,” said Banh.
Last Saturday, four separate groups were performing—two of them joined Warren.
An unofficial taskforce was created last year to address complaints at the lake—including sharing space with other musicians, and sound volume.
Theo Aytchan, of Samba Funk, was encouraging park goers to attend future meetings as a stand in solidarity with musicians like Warren. He said that the community surrounding the lake has changed.
Warren agreed, but said that one thing stayed the same. “People want to come here from around the world,” he said. “You have great musicians here.”