Children are often asked what they want to be when they grow up. At three years old, Dana Murray was gifted his first drum set and instantly knew he wanted to become a percussionist. After establishing his professional music career in New York City, the seasoned musician moved back to his home territory in Omaha and was presented with the opportunity to launch a music academy for youth. Now serving as the Executive Director of North Omaha Music & Arts (NOMA), the musical artist applies his background to educate young people and redevelop North Omaha through the power of music education.
During his childhood, Murray was surrounded by artists who allowed him to dive behind the scenes into the world of music. Murray’s biological father worked as a tour manager, which served in his favor when he seized the opportunity to experience being backstage at a Marvin Gaye concert. While other 11-year-olds his age spent time outdoors or playing board games, Murray saw firsthand the lifestyle of musicians and concert tour buses—a lifestyle he claimed he only saw in movies. “I finally had something that was tangible, and I think that’s where the drive started,” he said.
Murray’s early years behind a drum set fueled his passion to become a musician. His desire to further his skill sets led him to New York City where he later performed with big-name artists such as Roy Hargrove and Norah Jones and produced multiple albums and records. At the end of his time in the Big Apple, Murray expanded into contemporary and hip-hop genres, despite his love for jazz. “It evolved me as a human and gravitated me toward artistic things,” he said. “It introduced me to so many limitless possibilities.” One included Dojo Percussion, a competitive percussion ensemble Murray founded in Omaha.
Before NOMA, Murray returned to Omaha to raise his son and step away from his professional music life. Despite this, the musician knew he wanted to continue making music. He founded Dojo Percussion, a competitive percussion ensemble. He also wanted to educate others and used his professional musical background to network and connect with local schools and organizations. When presented with the opportunity to bring a music academy to North Omaha, Murray ventured into NOMA—a dream he said he envisioned for over 10 years but with a focus on percussion. Today, NOMA is an all-encompassing music academy that builds artistry and collaboration through music and arts education. Monday and Tuesday evenings offer jam sessions open to the public, and future plans include renovations to the existing building.
The loss of people Murray grew up with to drugs motivated him to pivot his life in music education predominantly in underserved communities. “That’s why my mission is so important; that could have easily been me if I didn’t have something to channel and focus my attention on,” he said. Inspired by the learning process, Murray attributes his success to the mentors he grew up with and translates that into his educational platform. “We’re teaching people to be emotionally self-sufficient. When you do that, they become more complete human beings and life becomes more fulfilling.”
From master classes by day to jazz concerts and street music festivals by night, the academy strives to build critical thinking skills and inspire young people to unlock their potential. Murray’s current role as NOMA’s founder and Executive Director has kickstarted his curricular-based programming, providing further educational opportunities for North Omaha. This, coupled with the organization’s passion for helping young people succeed, crafts NOMA’s identity and culture in the community.
The organization strives to inspire young people to use music as a catalyst, which Murray believes can help them develop a range of life skills. Using a hands-on approach, NOMA encourages students to seek enjoyment and dedicate their time to doing things they love. “Education is teaching someone to teach themselves,” he said. “It’s more than music—it’s really a lifestyle. If you’re committed to being a more enlightened human, music is a great vehicle.”
Murray has helped many students obtain scholarships, college degrees, doctorates, and performances in larger cities. He credits his time in New York City for his educational methods and how he prepares people for future situations. “A lot of young people have a perception of what real life is like until they’re faced with reality,” he said. “I want to give them the building blocks to prepare themselves if they weren’t brought up with that type of mentorship.” He said it’s common for people to view things in a box when they’re cut off from bigger markets, such as aspiring Omaha musicians envisioning careers in New York City. “Once you show people what’s outside that box, they know what they’re preparing for.”
Whereas the nonprofit stands by its vision, mission, and core values, Murray said his ultimate goal is for NOMA to serve as a transformative agenda in a traditionally underserved community. With a commitment to shaping the next generation of talent, NOMA strives to change lives by providing equitable educational opportunities in a culture of inclusion and empowerment. “It’s a music academy, but we are a human academy, first and foremost,” he emphasized. When educating the modern student, Murray said setting a bar of excellence helps drive home the “why” behind what people do. “Developing oneself is an emotional process, especially with music. The ‘why’ is where inspiration finds its home.”
Early exposure to a future passion accelerated Murray into the opportunities he continues to provide for the community. Beyond music and arts education, the steps NOMA takes to redevelop North Omaha shine through Murray’s devotion to inspiring young people and transforming their lives. When looking back at his life, Murray said that NOMA is everything he would have wanted growing up as an aspiring artist. “There is a rich legacy of music and culture in the North Omaha community. Although we are not reinventing the wheel, we are trying to reignite that fire and bring the spirit of days past to the present.”
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