Omelika Kuumba, C’81, Commits Talents to the Spelman Beat

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From her waist-length dreadlocks and vibrant African garments to her djembe drum and powerful dance moves, Omelika (pronounced O-may-lee-kah) Kuumba,C’81, is undeniably one of the most visible alumnae on the Spelman College campus. An African dance instructor in the Spelman College department of drama and dance since 1998, Kuumba is also the face and founding member of Giwayen Mata, a dynamic, show-stopping, all-female percussion ensemble.

For Kuumba, it’s all in a day’s work at her beloved alma mater. Dressed in a navy and maroon African wrapper with lace overlay and a yellow head tie, Kuumba is a striking, yet humble woman whose commitment to Spelman remains unwavering.

“For me, Spelman is hallowed ground,” said Kuumba, whose mother, grandmother, four great-aunts and several cousins attended Spelman. “My grandparents and parents met here, so Spelman will always hold a very special place in my heart. In so many ways, Spelman has been a blessing to me. I feel like I have to be a blessing as well.”

Born and raised Avis Bynum in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kuumba says she never intended to attend Spelman. Her heart was set on Howard University, but fate intervened. Theresa Chandler, a Spelman recruiter, spoke at a New York Spelman Alumnae Association event and made a presentation that ultimately changed Kuumba’s life.

“After she made that presentation, I was hooked,” she said, smiling at the thought. “She talked about the sisterhood, Spelman being a safe space for women, the camaraderie, and the empowering experiences of trailblazing women. It was really moving.”

It wasn’t long before Kuumba was immersed in the Spelman sisterhood experience. She became sophomore class president, vice president of the Spelman Student Government Association, Miss Maroon and White, and a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Despite her involvement in campus life, Kuumba decided to take a year off to “find” herself. Returning to Spelman with a renewed commitment to seek out more meaning in life; she graduated with a degree in philosophy.

“I was questioning life and trying to decide what I really wanted to do,” said Kuumba, who originally planned to major in biology and become a veterinarian. To embrace her true self, she changed her name in 1983 to Omelika, which means “light and soul of the omnipresent mother” in Nigerian. “I entered Spelman thinking I was going to do one thing, but after a lot of prayer, tears and meditation, I found that being a veterinarian was not my calling. It wasn’t until I started dancing and drumming that I realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Now it’s my livelihood and a career.”

Kuumba’s journey to being a performance artist began in the early 1980s, following stints as a seamstress, singer and sales clerk. After starting a family, she began working as a school volunteer and later as a substitute teacher. Inspired by another mom who danced, she enrolled in a free, six-week dance class that ultimately led to an invitation to join Faiza Dance Theater, a local dance troupe, in 1990. Soon after, she became assistant artistic director with the Barefoot Ballet Children’s Dance Ensemble.

In 1993, Kuumba put the percussion skills she learned as a child to good use when she co-founded Giwayen Mata, a Nigerian term for “elephant women.” In 2005, she became the director of Ashietu dance ministry, the Sisters Chapel African dance ministry, and in 2008, she and Giwayen Mata members took to the national stage, wowing judges on the hit show, “America’s Got Talent.” The group made it through the first round of eliminations but withdrew from the competition because of a performance scheduling conflict.

“It’s been a blessed journey, and one that I don’t take for granted in any form or fashion,” said Kuumba, who’s also an adjunct ethnic dance instructor at Emory University. “At Spelman, I feel like I’m home. This has been a place of growth, and I’m grateful. I really, really give thanks. I hope my ancestors are pleased with what I’m doing here.” – Alicia Lurry is senior communications specialist and editor of the Spelman Connection for the Office of Communications.

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  1. says

    Excellent article!!! Omelika has been consistent in her love for people as well as her love for the school since I first saw her and her group on stage in Sisters Chapel in the 90′s. I’m so excited about this article! I learned some new things about her story. Thnx to the “Inside Spelman” team!

  2. William King Gutshall says

    Truly it is a Blessing and an Honor to know Omelika Kuumba and call her friend—for it is by her deeds and the way she walks the Path Of The Heart that lifts the Soul of Humanity to ever higher aspirations. Giwayen Mata reflects those qualities and shines them forth into Community while touching hearts and lifting spirits.

  3. says

    Thank you SO VERY MUCH for including this article about me in this issue! It is a wonderful way for me to start the semester and it gives me a marvelous feeling as I approach my birthday on Monday.:-) I am truly humbled and honored by this recognition. Have a great semester!!!!

  4. Stacee E. Utsey-Horton says

    My Spelman Sister and Soror,

    GREAT article!!! I want to thank Ms. Theresa Candler for that ‘life changing’ presentation…:-) If it weren’t for that moment, we(Spelman) would not have been blessed with your beautiful spirit. But we all know that it was God’s divine order…Love you!

    Stacee E. Utsey-Horton, C’85

  5. Keith Hames says

    Great story, Thank you for choosing to share your talents, I am very happy
    to hear that have support. Ase’ Omelika!

  6. Angelina Dixon says

    We love Sister O! I have learned a lot from her being a member of Giwayen Mata and can not imagine my life without her guidance and leadership.

  7. Kathaleena Edward Monds says

    Omelika Kuumba is an inspiration to the universe! Her energy, beauty and intellect contribute strong vibes to a world in desparate need of optimism, art, music, and a place where African-American women can find their place, space to celebrate self. I am happy to call her sistah, friend, ‘special’, soror, Spelmanite, and one with whom I am able to embrace when I need to connect to the unwaivering Spelman legacy. Omelika recognizes the power of reciprocity and is always giving of herself that which the Creator has blessed her with — talent, wisdom, beauty and love! The ancestors rejoice in the sound of her drumming and us mortals sway to the beat as we all try to reconnect to the source of strength to keep us modern-day folks in focused on our purpose — Omelika is fulfilling her purpose. Hotep!

  8. DeAna Jo Vivian says

    Bravo to my sister Omelika! Thank you for continuing to encourage women of all ages to seek our purpose and calling in life!

  9. Baba Mike says

    Its always a good thing when one finds their calling in life. What better way to positively effect youth than by doing what you love in the process of passing on our African traditions.

  10. Immanuel Zechariah says

    Omelika has always been a source of inspiration to me and everyone she meets. I am so glad the Creator allowed our paths to cross. Happy Birthday little sis.

  11. says

    Its one thing to have an amazing gift but to have an amazing spirit along with it that you do not mind sharing is on another level and that Sister Omelika is. Positive influence on many and is greatly appreciated. Great article

    Dwight Holt

  12. Glenn S Forbes says

    The tribute article to Sister Omelika, was extremely motivating and representative of the strength and diversity that she possesses and gives proper recognition to my sisters at Spelman. Her journey and continued success can and should be a model of the manner of womanhood that too often is lost in today’s society and what young sisters of all color should aspire to become. Beneath Omelika’s smile and energy, there is a passion for people that is captivating. GOD Bless you my Sister and to the Institution from whence you have grown. Bro Glenn S Forbes, Morehouse 81

  13. Shaheedah Enahora says

    I believe that the ancestors are definately smiling on soror Omelika. She has a beautiful spirit. Her ability to share her knowledge of African dance and drum is awesome. If u haven’t taken one of her classes you’re missing a treat. Keep being you Omelika. Great job!

  14. Donna Thomas Walker '94 says

    Thanks Spelman for the deserving recognition of Sister Omelika, my Spelman sister, who is a very humbled woman. I have known her to be a woman who helps and continues to help others in becoming their true selves. I have known her to help and aide others as they seek to be positively tranfomed in loving self. She is and always will be a positive role model for not only the Spelman community, the Atlanta area but to and for the global world.

  15. says

    This is Great!! I truly love Sister Omelika. Her dedication to women and children around the world is amazing. Always humble and giving her spirit is one admired by all.

  16. Osuntola says

    Greetings Greetings Omi I am so Honored always when I read, hear, think, feel, know, see you in all your GLORY, Yes I am honored to know you and know you know me as well. I really many of your stories and I am smiling with joy now knowing the excelerating pace you have been going with ease htroughout the years. May your life forever be BLESSED with all who you have touched and BLESSED along the way. Happy Earth Light to you and your Family. With Love and Blessings Osuntola

  17. Nehemoyia says

    So proud!! Keep doing your thing, fervently inspiring children, women, men, and families to find their life-light. Your gratitude, honest nature, and positivity have been contagious we are all better for having shared space and time with you. I am so inspired; hopefully one day I will return to Spelman with such clarity and destiny, Thank you Sis O and Thank you SPELMAN!

  18. Tavina Claiborne says

    I am glad and extremely blessed to have met such a wonderful warm-hearted person. I was fortunate to meet Sis Omelika during my first year at Spelman by taking her African dance course. I later joined the Ashietu African dance ministry. She provided a great opportunity for me to do what I love (dance), and she contributing greatly to my Spelman experience more than she will ever know. It is my hope and prayer that I am able to positively impact other’s lives as she has impacted mine.

  19. troy gaskin says

    Congratulations on the wonderful article. You are a inspiration and a role model for those young women that come after you. Keep up the great work. 1 love.

  20. Rob Little says

    Wonderful Spotlight..
    Positive, Intelligent, Inspiring, Dynamic,,, Gorgeous
    Words cannot express how proud I am of my lovely sister. Though she was always special. more time!

  21. zarinah conry says

    Great article for a beautiful sister! I had the pleasure of meeting Sr.Omelika this summer while taking classes with her dance ensemble,Giwayen Mata. The first class I attended, I can remember this “humble yet striking” woman playing the hell (or heaven) out of her djembe while managing the entire class. She is petite, but plays that drum with power; definitely an elephant woman. She harbors a strong gravitational spirit,that transcended well before she even spoke. When we did speak,she was nothing short of warm and welcoming. I enjoyed dancing with her and crew and wish them all the best in success. Thanks for the article.

  22. Charlotte says

    Excellent article on the great work that Sis Omelika has done and continues to do for the Spelman community. She is a remarkable woman that I admired since I took her class my first year at Spelman College. Now as a graduate, I think back on the advice that she gave willingly and I am grateful for women like Sis O at Spelman that kept me focus and were prime examples of what it means to be a blessing to others.

  23. Marcus Kirlew says

    Such a wonderful article and very true to the core. I was blessed and honored to have the opportunity to take Sister Omelika’s African Dance class. It’s unfortunate that I only took it for one semester. What I loved about Sister Omelika is that she embraces everybody with love. Whether if an individual was a beginning or advanced dancer, she equally embraced everyone. She doesn’t tolerate slackness or if an individual is not bringing their best. All an individual has to bring is a willing heart to learn. She’s a wonderful soul that will leave an indelible mark at Spelman and the world.

  24. I. Vanessa Boyd says

    Omelika is so worthy of this recognition. I’ve been one of Omelika’s African dance students for over 10 years, and I’m grateful to be a recipient of her passion to share her love for dance and the arts. Taking her class enlightened me and made a positive impact on my life. I’m forever grateful to her and Giwayen Mata. Omelika has a warm and regal presence, and I’m proud to know Spelman appreciates her as much as I do!

  25. Roland Laird says

    Loved the article. I went to hs with Omelika. I admired her then and 37 years later, i still do. I want my daughters to be empowered Afrikan women just as she is.

  26. Zaire Green says


  27. says

    Omelika is a fantastic lady who leaves a positive and lasting impresion on everyone she meets. She is a blessing from The Creator. She makes us happy that we have gotten to know and enjoy her talents and be part of her life. I am very blessed to call Omelika my friend.

  28. Geralynn Lane says

    This article is so fitting. The fact that Sis. O’s name means ‘omnipresent mother’ is beyond appropiate. During my time at Spelman Sis. O was the only person I could count on to be consistently thoughtful,kind, giving, and just over all calming. I went through a time where I was incredibly homesick and although she doesn’t know it, dancing and interacting and learning from Sis. O gave me a sense of relief. It’s a rare and beautiful entity, the amount of time and dedication Sis. O puts into Spelman and everyone who is privileged enough to take her class or smart enough to join Ashietu will be blessed by here mere presence.

  29. Veronica Byrd '80 says

    Bravo, Bravo, Bravo Inside Spelman for Spotlighting a true beacon in the arts community and a true Spelman Sister. Omelika is the epitome of how ALL Spelman alumna should “give back” to our beloved school. I’ve known Omeilika for many, many years and this article just scratches the surface of what an AMAZING woman she is. Keep up the good work my darling. I love you “muchly” (but you know that)!!!!

  30. Cynthia says

    What an AWESOME article on such an AWE-INSPIRING individual! You are such a deLIGHT to the world! You make us all proud! Congrats!!!!!

    peace and love, cynthia C’87

  31. Porter Bingham says

    I am not surprised by this fantastic article written about Omileka because she has always been destined for greatness! I continue to be inspired by the woman that she has become and the gifts that you share that continue to enhance humanity! Omileka is a tool that “fine tunes” the universe.

    Porter Bingham,
    Morehouse “83″

  32. Tamika Hunter says

    Congratulations Sis.O! This is a wonderful article. You truely are a phenomenal women and have been a blessing in my life. Since becoming a member of Ashietu I have learned alot from you.

  33. Sharri McGlauthing says

    Well written article for a beautiful woman. It is a pleasure to see her grow and share her numerous talents. Well done, well done!

  34. Tambra says

    Miss Omelika,

    Your ancestors are proud for you. We are too. Thanks for the pathway that you have cleared. Your sisters are walking all around you. Love you!

  35. Jerry Kirkwood says

    I am extremely happy Omelika .To know you continue to spread your artistic talent and beautiful spirit to all. Continue to showcase your love and stay a shining example of Spelman College.

  36. melvin cooper says

    in my eyes she has always been at the top of it all as good as the best and better than the rest. her work in the afro dance movement is one of the reasons atlanta is on the map in the world of dance. she will always be a shero on the go

  37. Dennis Youngblood says

    A wonderful story and one I will share with my daughters. At the end of the day, one must find what makes them happy. I applaud her decision to take the path she has taken and I hope it continues to bring her happiness and provide inspiration to the people she touches.

  38. Sabrina Polote C'85 says

    Omelika, this is a wonderful article. It illustrates your dedication to Spelman and to the arts. Thank you for all you do and for sharing the beauty of your character as well your talents with the world. I’m proud to call you my Soror and my Spelman Sister. Continue being a blessing!!!

  39. Kenesha says

    I am not too surprised that an honor such as this would go to Sister Omelika. She is an awesome woman with a beautiful spirit who has touched the lives of many through her wisdom, pose, grace, and teachings of african dance. I am one of the many students that have had the honor of being in her presence, and learning the art of african dance and drum through her instruction. I am very touched that others also see the light that I see in her, and thoroughly display it through this article. Congrats!

  40. says

    This an an excellent article of Queen Omelika. She has continued to stay true to our african ancestors by celebrating our contributions with each beat of the drum. I had the priviledge of hiring Giwayen Mata to entertain the audience for a Fashion Show we were producing for Bronner Brothers in Atlanta with over 10,000 people in attendace. Giwayen Mata under the leadership of Omelika was absolutely magnificifent and by all means awesome. The group was professional and gave our audience more than what they expected. I reflect back on soror Omelika during our Spelman years and have always supported her passion, drive and determination. She exemplifies strength and is a quiet storm in her own right.
    Anita H. Bohannon C’83
    President of Bovanti Cosmetics and Beauty Empowerment Coach

  41. robin says

    beloved sister omelika, I am grateful to have witness and experienced the life changing spirit that you and Giwayan Mata has brought forth in us; waking up the sleeping gaints in our souls with ancestral dance/drums/art… blessed are those
    whom serve unconditional.

    from the heart Robin & Selah

  42. Chelsea Vill says

    I loveee Sister O, and after reading this I know why. I feel like me and her are like one sometimes. She’s a great person and has helped me grow as a person and dancing and I hope she will continue to do so. I’m also a member of her dance ministry Ashietu! I love her, I love her I love her!!!

  43. Dionna says

    Sister Omelika!!
    What a wonderful article!! You are one of the most profound and instrumental woman I know. I am so glad that I met you at Spelman and that you introduced me to African Dance forms. Ashietu helped me to find my love of dance again and helped me to feel like myself again in my home away from home. I am so happy that you are continuing to do wonderful things. Blessings, Peace and Love.

  44. says

    Omelika is one of the most gifted, intelligent and gracious human spirits that I have every met. She truly vibrates with positive, healing energy, both with the drum and through her beaming personality. It is impossible to be in her presence and escape this contagious, ancestral power. The same is true for the entire Giwayen Mata movement of feminine spirit. Their gifts, both individually and collectively, will move you from the inside out and call forth the ancestral dancer from within. Thank you, Giver of all good gifts, for this expression of beauty, grace and power. Ashe, ashe, ashe O!

  45. Hanan Davis says

    Sister Omelika has been an integral part of my African dance experience. From the time I began dancing 18 years ago, I have always seen her teaching, loving, and caring about people and sharing her gift of African dance and culture. And as it just so happened, I was fortunate enough to come to here to Spelman College, and we became sisters in more ways than just our love for African dance. I was able to take her class my freshwoman year, and I was amazed not only by her effective ways of teaching students how to move (who may not have ever moved that way before), but by her ability to touch and encourage the hearts of those around her at all times. I am very honored to know you and pray for many more years of your unique blessing upon the world.

  46. Naima Cosby says

    Sister Omelika is a beautiful person. She has a positive and energetic energy. I respect her on a whole different level now, having read this article and learning how much she has been involved in Spelman. Thank you, for what you do! We love you!

  47. Valita Sellers Quattlebaum says

    I love this article. It is a fitting tribute to Omelika and it captures her warm and beautiful spirit. She is an amazing Spelman woman in every sense of the word.

  48. Delores Walker-Burke says

    Wow! I enjoyed reading that article immensely. After 30 years of meeting you that was quite enlightening as how your life transformed from one stage to the next. We may never know where life choices may take us but one time is certain; staying in the race is the right path to victory. Whatever you faced in life you stayed on track and have accomplished much success. Kudos to you for your achievements. May God Grant you with many more success stories!!

  49. says

    This is an amazing article and I am fortunate to have the pleasure of knowing Sister Omelika, and to call her my sister. She has been an inspiration to me and many other women. I, as do others, look forward to what’s to come and being touched by her many talents. Peace & Blessings until the end of time Sister Omelika!

  50. gloria gayles says

    Bravo, Omelika, and encore! After each of your performances, that is what I say. Bravo! Encore! Bravo! Encore! You are quite remarkable.

    Gloria Gayles

  51. Mame Diarra Michelle McKinney says

    Our family is so blessed to include Cousin Omelika as a friend, cousin, and nurturing spirit. Omelika, we Detroit McKinneys thank the Wholy One for your loving self; know that we are proud of you, your ministry, your accolades, and your passion for African roots. I pray for your continued health, wealth, prosperity, joy, and community presence.
    Loving you!

  52. Peyton says

    Before I even arrived at Spelman, I knew of Sister O. My aunt told me what an amazing spirit she has and that it was CRUCIAL that I find her once I made it to campus. I snatched the opportunity to take her class and I Love it!!!! her enthusiasm and love for what she does makes me look forward to waking up early for her class. She deserves all of the recognition she receives and more. :)


  53. Glennis says

    It is such a blessing to be able to say, “I know this woman.” Omelika, you exemplify the true meaning of a POWERFUL SISTAH. In the years of knowing you, I have fallen more in love with your spirit and grace. As a mentee, it is truly humbling to reflect on your accomplishments and I smile every time I think of how you would actually tap djembe rhythms on my shoulder and foot as I was learning how to play. You have definitely raised the stakes, my sistah. Rock on, girl……ROCK ON!

    Continued blessings,

  54. Rev. Dr. Tarin Hampton says

    Me Nua (My Sister), Omelika,

    Warm Embracing Ancestral Pride in YOU comes from the Motherland! CONGRATULATIONS, as much honor and recognition is due to you for all your determination, focus, dedication, Love, direction, and personal example to so many young people and older young people! You continue to be a guiding light, which is expected of and exemplified by a “Queen Mother”! I am honored to know you, to love you, to respect you, and to work beside you any time. You have continued to be an ongoing inspiration to me and I say Meda’se Pa Pa Pa Pa! (THANK YOU Greatly!) I’m encouraged and excited that Spelman has given you such beautifully long-overdue recognition! Kudos to the writer! You always have an open invitation to Ghana, as my home is your home! I thank God for you and others like you! God Bless you and your wonderful family now and Always! NAMASTE! A Warm Shout-out to the Spelman Family as well!

    Wo Nua, Dr. “T”

  55. says

    As a member of the Morehouse class of ’81, the same class as my dear sister, Omelika, I am so proud to call her classmate and friend. You are a powerful inspiration and such a beautiful positive spirit. Your exceptional talent is superceded only by an extraordinary combination of Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness, humility, and faithfulness! May God add a double portion of grace to you and yours, both now and forever!

  56. Ntianu says

    This is a fantastic article about Sister Omelika. She is one of the most beautiful, talented, and positive individuals you will ever meet. I am proud to count her as a mentor and friend and know that great things will continue to happen for Giwayen Mata because the group is awesome.

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