Interview: Omelika Kuumba Spelman College’s Drum Major From Harlem To Harare

January 11, 2018

By Robert Walker

Omelika Kuumba is Spelman College’s Instructor of African Dance Forms in the Department of Dance Performance & Choreography that has been a figurative “Drum Major” for the many students who are touched by her grace, focus and ability to unlock that God-given talent inside each one to achieve a quality of life beyond dance.

It is evident when you attend any of Spelman’s dance programs or holiday performances, that Sister Omelika, as she is affectionately referred to by colleagues and students, that her impact on how these young people focus in performance has uplifted them on a spiritual level of awareness and purpose.

The students beam while on stage doing intricate rhythmic dance routines to the African drum beats provided by Omelika along with fellow drummers and family.

And when you see the students’ interactions with Sister Omelika, you feel the enormous respect and love they have for their Drum Major.

One colleague recently wrote on Omelika’s social media page:

“Sister Omelika, You have brought so much joy and inspiration to so many thru song, dance & rhythm. May it be returned to you without measure in 2018 & beyond! Love, Light, Peace, Blessings & Prosperity.”

Like many of the great performers of our times, or athletes, or even a great boss in the workplace, having the technical skills to perform, or teach and supervise, is 15% of what is needed, but 85% for a successful work place, no matter what the venue is – on stage, on the field or court, or in the office – is how a teacher, a boss, or a leader interacts with those they are leading.

Many of Omelika’s former students that I spoke with remembers how she made them feel that allowed them to go deeper within to find purpose.

Basketball legend, Michael Jordan, is the iconic figure as professional basketball’s standard for achievement. This is not just because he won six NBA Titles, or was the premiere player of his time, maybe of all times in pro basketball, but because his ability to make everyone around him dig deeper within themselves and elevate their game is what those who played with him, or against him, talk about the most.

In the dance world, I think of Sister Omelika as channeling the likes of such greats as, Katherine Dunham, Carmen de Lavallade, Alvin Alley, and Judith Jamison, all of whom influenced generations of dancers to become successful people in life beyond their performance lives.

Thank you Sister Omelika for taking this time in the new year to do this interview:

Robert Fuller: Omelika Kuumba is your chosen African name? What does it mean, and what does the name mean to you spiritually?

Omelika Kuumba: Omelika means, “Light and Soul of the Omnipresent Mother”. It was given to me by my godfather, the late Bro. Josiah Osuagwo. He gave it to me after I asked him for a name that meant, “Sunshine.” I see the name as inspiration to constantly strive to be the best person I can be. The name keeps me working! Kuumba means, “Creativity”. It is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. It was given to me by, poet and artist, Bro. Kenneth Zakee when we performed together many years ago.

RF: You were born and raised in Brooklyn, New York? What was it like growing up in New York, and how did you come to settle in Atlanta?

OK: I loved growing up in NY! It was fast-paced, exciting, multi-faceted, multi-cultural and full of fun! I most enjoyed having regular opportunities to go to the theatre on and off Broadway and going to concerts at places like Madison Square Garden. I came to Atlanta to attend Spelman College in 1977 and decided to make it my home in 1980.

RF: You are an African drummer and dancer. Was that something you learned while in New York. What attracted you to drumming and African dance?

OK:  I danced as a child growing up in NY. I took modern dance classes in elementary school. I also took African dance classes in Black School, a Saturday school created by several mothers, including mine, (mostly educators ) who wanted to reinforce their children’s understanding and knowledge of African and African American history and culture.

I also choreographed dances to popular songs for friends in my neighborhood and my Cousins’ and my singing groups. I used to play rhythms on tables, desks and chairs as a little girl and I was finally inspired to ask for a drum-set because of my Cousin, Gayelynn McKinney, a well-known jazz drummer from Detroit. My Mom got me a snare drum.

I became involved with African dance when my daughter, Zanaida Wakatama, started dancing.

I was also inspired by one of my Spelman sisters, Safiya Harrison. I saw her dance in a concert shortly after having had her third child. She looked like a beautiful gazelle, and made me wonder what it would be like to do African dance again. I had often thought of taking classes, but the idea of traipsing through town on the bus to a dance class with two young children and scraping together the money to take the class was very prohibitive for me.

In 1987, however, Wendy Lovelace got funding to host the DanceAfrica Workshop Series. This was a 6-week series of classes that was offered for FREE. With the cost of the class no longer being an issue, I jumped at the opportunity to participate. At the end of the fourth week of the series Wendy Lovelace invited me to join a company that she was starting. Dancing with Faiza! was the beginning of my professional career. I hope to be able to provide similar opportunities for other people to discover their passions and artistic possibilities without the stress of financing it.

After Faiza! I was asked to become the assistant artistic director of a company, Barefoot Ballet Children’s Dance Ensemble, by its founder and artistic director, Osunlade Fatunmise.That was the beginning of my professional teaching and choreographing career. I began playing African drums with Barefoot Ballet. It was out of necessity. Our lead drummer at the time, Baba Atu Murray, was often double-booked and late or unable to make it to rehearsals. One day he arrived just prior to the end of rehearsal and found me with the children dancing as I was standing and playing on top of a closet. He invited me to play his drum instead. I’ve been hooked since then!

RF: Who were your influences in dance performance and drumming coming up?

OK: Zanaida Wakatama and Safiya Harrison were my influences to do African dance as an adult. Gayelynn McKinney and Sheila E were my influences to drum.

RF: You are also the Artistic Director of Giwayen Mata? What’s the name mean and what does your company do?

OK: Giwayen Mata is a Hausa term that means, “Elephant Women”. It is a term given to women who lead women’s organizations. Giwayen Mata is the award-winning , dynamic, soul-stirring, all-sister, dance, percussion and vocal ensemble. We began our artistic journey together on March 28, 1993.

The ensemble performs dances, rhythms and songs of Africa and the African diaspora. We also teach classes in African dance and percussion. Our goals include inspiring and empowering our students and audience members by exposing them to the beauty and richness of dance, music, history, and cultures.

RF: In my introduction of you I compared you to people like Katherine Dunham and Michael Jordan for the impact you have on students. I could see the love, actually feel the positive energy, coming from your students as they interacted with you on stage and off. What does that mean for you personally?

OK: That is one of the greatest blessings of my life! I have been teaching for nearly 30 years. I have been teaching at Spelman for 20 years. The bonds that I have built with my students have provided me with so much joy, motivation and love. I continue to be grateful for having had the chance to touch and be touched by so many lives!

RF: While attending one of your closing dance programs, your son, who is also a drummer, was your lead drummer for the students’ dance performances. How much does that mean to you that your son has followed you professionally and that you can work together?

OK: It means the world to me that my son and I get to work together professionally! He has gone from being one of my students to being one of my teachers. I am proud to have been at the foundation of his artistic and academic development, and I am excited to see how much he has grown. He is an excellent dancer, drummer, teacher, and a wonderful performer! I enjoy watching him teach as much as I enjoy watching him perform.

RF: I know that you had a personal incident involving an automobile accident. So, let me say, it is great that you are recovering. I know so many people were concerned for you. What do you take away from that incident and has it helped you in any way now when teaching your students?

OK: Thank you so much, Robert. This part of my life has definitely been a journey! One of the lessons that I took away from the accident is that it is important for me to be seen. The person who hit me apologized profusely and insisted that she didn’t mean to hurt me, but that she did not see me. Too often I have had experiences where, even in being my most authentic self, people have unintentionally hurt me because they could not really “see” me.They, therefore, did not know how to fully recognize, appreciate and respect my presence.

Another fact that was affirmed for me as I was lying down in the street, looking at the sky, feeling the excruciating pain in my foot and knee, is that joy is an unquestionable necessity for my life. There was a police officer ,whose name I wish I remembered, who stayed with me and kept me laughing as best he could the entire time we waited for an ambulance to come for me.

I was also reminded to be of service. A woman who worked at the nearby bank came out to help me. She called my Son to let him know what happened to me and also waited with me until the ambulance came. I remembered that I must acknowledge my mistakes and accept responsibilities for them, and be seen so that I can experience and bring joy to the people whom I am blessed to serve.

One of my greatest gifts from the experience, however, was the love that surrounds me! My Children were there for me from DAY ONE. They took care of me for three months. They opened their homes to me and they, their spouses and my Grandchildren nursed me forward to health. I also received a tremendous amount of love and support from the community, my family, sorors, students, classmates and friends locally and nationwide. My Mom and my best friend/Sister by everything except blood, Gretchen Gale Merriweather, came down from NY to be with me before my first surgery, and my Mom came for the second surgery.

Thanks to Ramatu A. Sabbatt, Carol Lloyd, Dr. Barbara Williams-Emerson and John Eaton, there was an amazingly successful fundraiser held on my behalf. In addition to an online campaign, there was a heartwarming, talent-filled, and affirming program hosted by Afemo and Elizabeth Omilami. Over 200 people were in attendance, many who traveled from other states. More wanted to attend, but the venue was filled to capacity. Over 500 people made donations, and sent cards and gifts.

My take-away from the experience is that I am blessed! I am humbled and I am fortunate to have family and friends who love, care and support me way beyond anything I ever imagined!

My injuries require me to be patient with myself as Iearn how to move in spite of the discomfort. They also inspire me to be even more patient with my students as they explore African dances and rhythms.

RF: I know that you have committed yourself to teaching your students and you do performances with Giwayen Mata, but I have to tell you, you have quite a stage presence with an electric smile and talent…have you ever thought about doing something beyond what you have established thus far, like touring with ‘The Lion King’, or performing on Broadway?

OK: I would LOVE to do something like that!!!!! If you have any leads, then PLEASE let me know!

RF: You speak to young people all of the time, and you know there is a discouraging view that many young people today don’t see a bright future ahead, although that may not be necessarily so with college kids, but what if you were asked to give a commencement speech for the graduating class of 2018, what would you like to share with those young graduates about their futures.

OK: As long as we are given another moment on this side of eternity there is hope. Cherish your family and honor your friendships. Find your passion. Use it as a tool to uplift and motivate others. Be an agent of positive change. Acknowledge mistakes and accept responsibilities for them. Be seen so that you can experience and bring joy to the people whom you are blessed to serve!

RF: Where can our readers find you on social media Sister Omelika and find Giwayen Mata?

OK: People can go to our website at :

You may also find Omelika and Giwayen Mata on YouTube. I’m still learning how to use social media and travel through cyberspace, and you will be able to find more on Omelika Kuumba and Sistah With A Nia (SWAN) as time goes forward.

RF: At the end of things, what would you like people to remember you most for Sister Omelika?

OK: Dancing and drumming have been my primary vehicles, but I hope that people remember me for the love and joy that I aimed to bring and share.

RF: Thank you Sister Omelika for this time. I rarely get “star-struck” when interviewing such talented people, but your inspirational personality, wit, talent and focus is refreshing. Looking forward to a follow-up interview sometime in the near future.

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