It's Saturday and Aaron Davis has just set up his drum kit, with help from his grandfather, near Lake Merritt, by the 580 freeway, across the street from the busy Grand Lake Farmer’s Market.
Davis, 18 years old, comes here to Eastshore Park most weekends to practice his drumming, sometimes making a few hundred dollars in tips. But in late August, Davis says, a young, white woman who lives across the street came up to him as he played, and complained about the noise.
“She decided to hold her hands on my cymbals like that,” he says pretending to lean on the cymbals, “knocking this one over.”
The cymbal, worth $279, got pretty dinged up. “And I was getting fired up to like I was ready to hit her. But then I was like, if I did, things would have been much worse. So I was just like take a deep breath. Whooo. Okay."
The Bay Area can be a tough place for musicians, with its high rents and noise complaints like those last year about music in Oakland. Police cited Latino and African-American members of a drumming group at Lake Merritt after a complaint from a white man, and newcomers complained to police about loud singing and praying at a church in rapidly gentrifying West Oakland.
The woman with the complaint about Davis' drumming called Oakland Police, but Davis had long since checked with officers, and they had told him that as long as he wasn’t amplifying his sound, he wasn’t breaking any laws in what is a very noisy neighborhood. Police often wave to Davis, he said, as they drive by in their patrol cars.
So nothing happened. Except a fan wrote a Facebook post about Davis’ encounter, and it got reposted a lot. #DrummerBoyAaron became the hero of a story about how newcomers to the city should be more respectful of Oakland’s culture.
So this past Saturday, it wasn’t just Davis out there. More than a dozen other drummers from around the Bay Area joined him, plus someone on cowbells and kids with rattles. The drum corps Loco Bloco from San Francisco was there. “He’s a young kid out here drumming, and getting harassed by neighbors,” said drum instructor Anttwan Stanberry. “I think that’s not right, and we need to show more support for the arts.”
The crowd swelled also with Oakland residents like Dolores Payne. “I'm here because he’s a young black male,” Payne said as she sat in a lawn chair and nibbled on a hot dog, “and there’s not too much support for them out there. So we the people have to do it.”
Emma Batten Bowman, one of Davis’ teachers from Rudsdale High School in East Oakland came too. “I was proud of him,” she said referring to how Davis kept his cool when the woman knocked over his cymbals.
Bowman, who is white, said she’s a fourth-generation Oaklander, and “why would we not support a young black student that’s here drumming and spending his time so positively.
“And in light of all the police brutality and violence perpetrated against black men,” Bowman said. “It seems unconscionable that someone would purposely call the cops on a young black man, with what could happen.”
Meanwhile Davis, wearing a baseball cap tilted sideways, was playing his usual round of R&B, hip-hop and fusion, with help from the other musicians.
“I feel so blessed,” he shouted to the crowd after one jam. “Thank you all for coming out. Oh my God.”
There was no sign of the woman who had complained about the noise.
Sunday morning, Davis was playing drums at his East Oakland church, Genesis Worship Center, as usual.
“It was a blast yesterday,” he said. “And I want to thank God, for so much support.”
Church Elder Isaac Frederick had heard about Davis and the Grand Lake neighbor. “Individuals that are coming here,” he said, “may not know the full culture behind Oakland and the richness that is behind our city.”
Davis said he made more than a $1,000 in tips on Saturday. He spent the money that same afternoon replacing the broken cymbal, and buying two new ones for the drum kit at Genesis.
The lesson of the experience for him, said Davis, was how Bay Area musicians and Oaklanders came together to celebrate its culture, and how loving everyone was. “It doesn’t matter what skin color you are,” Davis said. “You guys are all my brothers and sisters.”