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For Naydja Bruton, Music Is About Emotional Connection

Written by on July 26, 2022

Teacher and session drummer Naydja Bruton finds community through music.

Naydja Bruton, AKA Rhythm Ninja Drums, is a session drummer, teacher and composer living in Englewood who helps her students externalize emotion through music. 

Bruton grew up in Sparta, Illinois, a town with less than 5,000 residents. She describes her younger self as a bit of a loner, recalling she had a hard time finding community at an early age. While watching the 2002 film Drumline, she found herself swept up in the intensity of the film’s depiction of a marching band and asked her school’s band director if she could get involved. From there, percussion came very naturally, and Bruton’s school band gave her a new sense of kinship. 

Naydja Bruton plays a snare drum on the front porch of her Englewood home.
Photo by Morgan Ciocca / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

A teacher as well as a drummer-for-hire, Bruton mainly teaches students in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. One aspect of music she makes sure to highlight among her students is its connection to emotion and feeling. When teaching, Bruton often puts theory on the backburner to emphasize emotional connection to music. She says seeing the accomplishment her students feel after learning a new piece of music is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her work. She understands the struggles and questions about life and personal identity her students have and, for her, music is one of the best ways to express those feelings.

As part of our audio interview series “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” we talked with Naydja about her residency at Elastic Arts, her musical development and the joy of creating.

How would you describe the work you do?

What I do is I play drums for any and everybody that is… trying to put me on to their music. I’m definitely a drummer for hire mostly, and also produce my own music, create my own compositions.

Are you from Chicago originally?

I live in Chicago. I’m not from Chicago, but I’ve been running through these streets for a long time, so I might as well be from Chicago. I’m originally from this tiny little town in Sparta, Illinois. It’s just like a town of maybe like 1,000 people — maybe. My grandmother lives here, and so we would come up a lot as kids, and my granddad also lives here and he’s from here. As a kid, I would come back and forth visiting. And then as I got older, I would come and stay a lot more, and then I made friends here. And then I started playing music here. So Chicago has been kind of constantly pulling me back, even though I keep trying to leave. It’s just been like, “Come on, Naydja, just stay for a little while longer.” 

What do you love most about Chicago?

A lot of amazing musicians just kind of like, secretly hide out in Chicago. For what reason, I don’t know. But it’s just stacked with amazing musicians. And that would probably be my favorite thing about this place.

Right now, living in Englewood, what I love about it is it’s quiet. I love that there’s just a lot of like Black and Brown folks in this neighborhood, which always makes me feel good as a Black person to be around people who may know the struggle. May… understand just the walk of life that I live on a regular basis. Who’re gonna keep it real… If they like you, they like you. If they don’t, they don’t. And that’s what I appreciate, is just that transparency. 

When did you start drumming and making music?

In my mind, there’s always music happening. It’s just like, I’ll be walking, or anytime there’s a break between conversation or TV or the radio or anything… any silence, there’s music in there. I’ve been composing… since I was probably like 18, but back then I was just making beats. That was my first level of composition was making beats for this hip-hop group I was in called Collective Consciousness. And I would make the beats for that crew. I just met this person who told me how to use FL Studio and I was just playing… around with it. And then I just kept going. I saw the movie Drumline with Nick Cannon. 

And it was the best movie I had ever saw in my life. I didn’t even know that that was even a life that existed. The marching band and stuff like that… I was on the edge of my seat, my hair was standing up. It was crazy. 

Starting up my sophomore year, the first day I went to the band director and I said, “Hey, I saw this movie. I feel like I really need to be in a band. Can you put me in on the drumline?” Mr. Reuben Cooper was his name. And he was like, “Yeah.” This cool, funny Black man was just like, “Yep, let’s get in here. I’m gonna put you with the drumline leader and he’ll show you how to hold your sticks.” And it was a rap after that. Once I learned how to hold my sticks, you couldn’t hold me. You couldn’t hold me. I was playing everything. It came super natural to me. 

I felt like I really stuck with music because it was probably the first time… Once I started playing music was the first time in my life that I really felt like I had community. Because I was kind of like a loner kid. I was always by myself, and if I was hanging out with people… I was like the butt of the joke to them. I was like the queer kid… hanging out with all these girls who was into, like… N-Sync and B2K and stuff. And I’d be like, “Oh yeah, he’s so cute,” but really being like, “Y’all are cute, these friends that I’m hanging out with.” 

So I always felt kinda left out, but then once I started playing music… so much world opened up for me.

Tell us a little bit about your work as a teacher.

I teach individual lessons. A lot of our students are in Hyde Park, depending on… what the needs are of the kids. And a lot of it is I teach… just communication and feeling. Music is what people go to when they need to feel something, right? If they’re in a sad place, they want to hear the sad tunes. If they’re in a good place, they’re trying to dance. They want to hear the upbeats, the bops. 

Music is 100% connected to feeling. I think that teaching that connection… of how to place a feeling on a tune also teaches you how to… do the same in life as well. You know what I’m saying? Like… if somebody comes up to you and say, “I’m not having a good day today. Like, today’s just not my day.” And then you just like, “Cool! Alright, so what should we do next?” It’s not the same type of energy you want to lend to that kind of situation, if you care about them. You know, you want to be on that level, like, “Dang, how are you doing? You okay? Do you want to talk about it? You all right?” You know? And then it may help the person to… open up and bring to light whatever it is that they’re trying to get off their chest. So it’s all the same to me music and life is… is.

And I do some… theory and stuff. But music theory is kind of boring to me. And it’s kind of boring to the kids, too. So, we don’t focus a ton on it. I do make sure to get that in there, just in case they want to go that route. But I mostly teach just like… how to make a connection happen as the drummer. How do you connect this music, and how do you connect to the music and how do you bring this music to life? Because I love to see joy in kids, and I just love it when they feel accomplished because I just know that struggle… of feeling like, “What am I doing with my life?” Even though you’re a child… those questions come up very early. Like, “Who am I? What am I doing? What’s my purpose? What’s my joy?” So… and this is like a way that I find joy, and I know it gave me community, so seeing that expression on the kids face just be like, “Dang, you got me.” 

Who are you listening to right now?

So right now, I’m listening to a lot of Nate Smith. I’m also listening to this band called Snaarj… and the album — both their albums are really good. They only got two albums out. You got Je’Raf, that band is lit. Mermaid NV, that band is super lit. Definitely Dreamworld. And Lyn Rye is a phenomenal bass player that I’m also working with too. So anything that she’s doing is just… it’s just on a whole ‘nother level. Time and space… she will take you on a trip. 


You know, so much stuff is going on in the world and so much stuff is going on in my life personally that I’ve just been… not really wanting to feel anything, just in general. Just like no feeling in my body. Like, even moments of… joy where people were like, “Yo, this is dope… you should be happy about this.” And I’m like, “You right, I should, but like… I just don’t feel nothing.”

I just got a residency at Elastic Arts through the Dark Matter Program, which basically is like to support Black and Brown Indigenous artists. And then… having this rehearsal, I’m just like, “My vision is coming alive!” It’s bringing joy to my body… and it feels good to really execute something that is my truth, and putting it out with people who believe in my project. 

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Follow Naydja Bruton on Instagram and learn more about her work by visiting her website.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction and transcription by George Chiligiris

Photography and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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