The intersection at MacArthur Boulevard and Grand Avenue is always busy, but especially on weekends: cars zooming off the freeway, people walking their dogs and to the farmers’ market, others working out or playing with their kids. But blending in with the sounds of cars and people is the unmistakable sound of a drumset.
It’s played by a young man, Aaron Davis Warren, who goes by the name “Drummer Boy Aaron.” In the year and a half since the 19-year-old started playing regularly by Lake Merritt, he has gained lots of fans — his Instagram account has more than 23,000 followers — and a few detractors. Last summer, an incident with a neighbor complaining about the noise prompted the community to react; local musicians and activists showed up to the corner where he plays to show their support. Even Mayor Libby Schaaf has given him the thumbs up.
Warren began playing drums when he was just 2 years old. While sipping a frappuccino at a local coffee shop recently, he vividly recalled what it felt like to hold full-size drumsticks, and learning to count “one, two, three, four,” thumping away on the table.
Warren grew up listening to hip-hop, gospel, and jazz, and that’s reflected in his smooth, funky style. Like many Oakland musicians, he got his training in church — specifically the Good Samaritan Cathedral Church of God in Christ in Oakland, where he learned from Ray Murry and Corey Baugh, who drums for Goapele. “Watching them play how they played when I was growing up inspired me to learn how to play,” Warren said. He continues to practice at the church and plays with the choir every Sunday. “It’s my full-time job,” he said.
Although he grew up in Oakland, Warren moved to Stockton with his mom during high school, where he joined the marching band. He began posting videos of himself drumming on Instagram, and they caught the attention of an artist scouting for talent on the social media platform, who asked Warren to go on tour the summer before his sophomore year. The tour ultimately led Warren to drop out of high school. Upon his return from this gig, friends and family pressed Warren to go back to school and finish high school. Last year, he obtained his high school diploma from Rudsdale Continuation School.
Having already developed a following on social media, Warren decided last year that he needed a place to practice. So in March 2016, he began his stint at the corner of MacArthur and Grand. He has gotten mostly positive responses from his Saturday jamming sessions, except for the incident with the neighbor.
“You heard about that?” Warren said. “Oh my goodness.”
The incident involved a woman who said she lived across the street. According to news reports, she threatened to call the cops, handed him a make-shift “noise violation” notice, and, when he discarded it, knocked one of his cymbals over. (The cymbal cost upwards of $300.)
Afterward, Warren reached out to Mayor Libby Schaaf, who he had met previously at his church. He said the mayor told him he could continue playing as long as he obtained a permit to incorporate the use of a speaker, and stayed within the 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. curfew.
He hasn’t had any troubles since. Warren said police have never given him a hard time. To the contrary, officers who patrol the area often wave at him or some even stop to listen for a few minutes.
The use of a speaker has elevated his Saturday sessions. He drums along to instrumental versions of popular songs by Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and Earth Wind & Fire, among others. “You know, most songs have naughty cuss words,” he said. “There’s kids around, I gotta show respect.”
Shockingly, Warren’s dream isn’t to be a drummer full-time. “I see myself touring for a time, and when I’m not touring I see myself being a BART train operator,” he said. “That way, it evens out and I don’t have to rely on drumming all the time. What if I get hurt playing drums?” Warren is serious about his future career choice: He has talked to several BART train operators who have helped him better understand the system. He shows the same passion when talking about the intricate ways in which BART operates as he does when talking about drums and music.
He said his grandparents encourage him to stay faithful, committed, and dedicated. “If there’s something in your life that you want to take seriously, you have to be committed to do those things,” he said.
As for those who may not appreciate his drumming so much? He holds no grudges. “You can’t live off of hate, you gotta live with love,” he said. “You ain’t gonna make it into Heaven without forgiving.”