The pedestrian crosswalk at East Point Street and Dorsey Avenue is clearly marked. Two and a half years ago, Omelika Kuumba stepped inside the painted lines at the East Point intersection, following stop sign rules. In a microsecond, she was flat on the pavement, waves of pain shooting through her left leg.
The woman driving the car that hit her stopped, got out and said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t see you.”
Kuumba replied, “You didn’t see me?” But she thought, “I’m five-foot-six, and it’s 12 o’clock in the afternoon; how could you not see me?”
An off-duty police offer happened to be nearby, and he sat by her while she waited for an ambulance. He calmed her and uttered a few jokes so that she could laugh through the pain.
She has since translated that experience into her life. “How many times have I been in that situation where I was thinking that I was being my most authentic self and then still wasn’t seen or was misinterpreted? You might wind up getting hurt, even though that wasn’t the intention of the person or situation.”
The police officer’s care for her in that crisis taught her something about herself as well. During life’s difficult or painful moments, she had to have joy.
The accident led to Kuumba’s retirement last summer from her role as artistic director of Giwayen Mata, the “all-sistah” African dance and drumming group that Kuumba led for 25 years. The incident also gave her clarity on two strands that have run through her life and time with Giwayen Mata.
First was the importance of “being seen” and all that encompasses — to be authentic, to be understood and to be not only visible but also recognized for who she was and what she has achieved. With Kuumba as its leader, Giwayen Mata proved that women can play African drums with excellence and distinction and disproved doubts that women could work together as a unified group. Through Kuumba’s vision, and despite challenges, the organization helped weave Atlanta’s African dance and drumming scene into the national conversation about African culture via DanceAfrica USA celebrations.
The second strand, joy, was especially palpable on a warm evening last July at Morehouse College’s Ray Charles Performing Arts Center, when Giwayen Mata celebrated its 25th anniversary and Kuumba’s passage into a new role as artistic director emerita. To the usual packed concert hall, one work after another celebrated the company’s history.
At one unforgettable moment, a line of female dancers and musicians moved forward toward the audience, their energy at full throttle. They seemed to grow larger than life, vivifying the air with colors, tones and polyrhythms that seemed to swirl together to an intoxicating effect.
It’s a well-known feeling that African drumming can incite, especially for those who have studied the traditional West African dances. The rhythms create a kind of “sweetness” that heightens the senses and fills the brain. It can inspire people to feel a sense of pride in their identities, their communities and their ancestral heritage. It urges people to move. It’s a deep and abiding joy — a sweetness that has helped sustain Giwayen Mata in its long and continuing lifespan.
It’s a sweetness that’s felt when Kuumba has a djembe drum singing under her hands. She subtly sways her hips and shoulders, smiling, encouraging — a distinct voice woven in with her fellow drummers’ percussive lines. The drumming is propulsive and hypnotic, echoing a heartbeat, the wind or the ocean’s ebb and flow.
It all seems part of a continuum of rises and falls, of learning, practicing and teaching and pushing herself to be the best, and inspiring others to do the same. Such joy is one of those intangibles that can easily be lost to history if not seen, acknowledged and understood.
“She is principled, polite; as beautiful as she is outside, that’s how beautiful she was inside,” said Osunlade Fatunmise, a longtime artistic associate and teacher to Kuumba. “She tried to treat everyone as fairly as she could, sometimes sacrificing herself. She radiates love. That’s who she is. She was brought to the Earth to bring joy.”
Omelika Kuumba grew up in Brooklyn during the 1960s and ’70s, her lineage among scholars and leaders in education. She is quick to honor her forebears. Her mother is an educator. Her grandfather earned a doctorate from Yale University and went on to found the philosophy department at Morgan State University before serving as president of Storer College in West Virginia. Kuumba’s great-grandfather graduated from Howard University and was an attorney during the pre-Civil Rights era. Kuumba is also proud of her Cherokee ancestry.
Kuumba grew up understanding the richness of African and African American culture and studied West African rhythms through dances. In 1977, she saw the first DanceAfrica festival at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Like many people, she was struck by festival founder Baba Chuck Davis’ larger-than-life presence and his booming message of “peace, love, and respect for everybody.”
A third-generation Spelman woman, Kuumba completed a degree in philosophy with the class of 1981 and now teaches at Spelman and leads the Sisters Chapel African Dance and Drum Ministry.
Her professional dance career started with an African dance workshop taught by Wendy Lovelace under the DanceAfrica banner. Baba Chuck Davis was one of the teachers, and Kuumba was impressed with the joy he brought to teaching and the way he commanded respect and inspired people to do their best.
Four weeks into the session, Kuumba was invited to join the dance company Faiza! Within two years, Osunlade Fatunmise, then director of Barefoot Ballet Children’s Dance Ensemble, asked Kuumba to serve as the group’s assistant artistic director.
“What I saw is consistency,” Fatunmise said. “Omelika is genuine, loyal, and she follows through. She’s one of the hardest-working people I know. No matter what, she shows up.”
At the time, the community’s African drummers — all male — were in greater demand due to the forming of several African dance groups: Uhuru Dancers, Atlanta Dance Connection and Barefoot Ballet Children’s Dance Ensemble. Barefoot Ballet had an adult offshoot, called Manya (now Manga African Dance, Inc., cofounded and directed by Ramatu Afegbua-Sabbatt).
“We were at a point where the male drummers were flaky,” said Fatunmise. “They often showed up late, or not at all.”
Kuumba remembers conducting a rehearsal without an accompanist in an elementary school classroom. She was beating out rhythms on the top of a child-size wooden closet when the drummer, Baba Atu Murray, entered the room, saw Kuumba and handed her his drum.
The handoff captured the energy of the moment. Fatunmise, Afegbua-Sabbatt and a group of women decided they would learn to play drums so they could accompany each other’s classes and rehearsals. Kuumba joined them in studying traditional African rhythms, and they held drum sessions at Piedmont and West End parks.
Word of the all-female drumming ensemble got out, and the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam mosque invited them to play for a women’s fashion show, recognition that led to their opening for Sisters of the Calabash at Spelman. These successes inspired them to form a company. They called themselves Giwayen Mata, a Hausa term meaning “Elephant Women,” which is a title given to women who are leaders of women’s organizations.
Kuumba had organized the first shows, and she felt comfortable taking the role of artistic director.
“When we met, she wasn’t shy, but she wasn’t an extrovert,” Fatunmise said of Kuumba’s leadership. “I saw her grow as she opened more to the calling of this art form. She became more and more that spirit.”
The women played from their hearts but met intense criticism from people who believed women should not play African drums, especially the sacred djembe, which was traditionally played only by ordained male priests.
“We could have been frightened away,” said Kuumba. Instead, they sought answers from native African teachers.
Traditionally, the African teachers said, it was believed that women created the sacred rhythms but preferred to dance them and let the men drum them. A teacher explained that the vibrations could cause internal injury, so drummers must use practiced technique, along with proper breathing and hydration.
The women studied diligently. They researched each dance and song carefully to present it in a cultural context so audiences could understand and relate to its meaning.
Kuumba soon discovered that she would have to turn her focus from dancing to lead drumming. Someone had to know the choreography, where the percussion breaks were and how to accompany the dancers.
“Omelika made it her business to learn each drum part, each dance part, the songs that come along with it, the ethnic group and region of where it originates,” wrote company cofounder Sarahn Henderson.
The pairing of performance with scholarship — and Kuumba’s passionate way of sharing that knowledge with audiences — has distinguished Giwayen Mata among groups presenting dance of the African diaspora, said Collette Hopkins, former director of education of the National Black Arts Festival. “The teaching part, the scholarship,” said Hopkins, “has been as critical to their success as the actual performance.”
Because passion and joy are integral to Kuumba’s scholarship, and the way she presents the work to an audience, it changes the way people relate to the performers. “This is not her work,” said Hopkins. “This is her joy.”
Naysayers fell by the wayside as Giwayen Mata’s reputation grew, especially after the troupe performed in the 1996 Cultural Olympiad. Kuumba remembers playing works by percussionists Mickey Hart and Babatunde Olatunji atop the Green Tower, one of five towers filled and surrounded by dancers and drummers during opening ceremonies in the Olympic Stadium. It was a career highlight, Kuumba said, to be on a world stage.
Over the years, Kuumba helped to develop a company culture that embraced and encouraged women, although she often had to sacrifice her own needs and desires for the common good. Until 2010, the company self-produced its performances. As artistic director, Kuumba often put the needs of her company members ahead of her own, especially where pay and time with family outside of the studio were concerned.
More than 80 women were members of Giwayen Mata during Kuumba’s tenure as artistic director.
“Crises come up, babies are born and people come through,” Kuumba said. If a mother needed to take time away from the company, say, to help a child overcome difficulties with schoolwork, the group supported the mother’s efforts and then welcomed her when she returned. As a platform for artistic collaboration and expression, Kuumba said, Giwayen Mata gives women a “sense of belonging, a sense of empowerment and a sense of being heard.”
The women have come from different backgrounds, religious and otherwise. For different values to coexist, Kuumba emphasized commonalities. “We have a spiritual connection, recognizing that we should be good to one another,” Kuumba said. “We should try to do what we can to preserve our environment, and to live in as much harmony as possible.”
As performing artists, the sisters carefully consider the impact of their actions. “Luckily, there is joy and love amongst us,” Kuumba said. “So the fun and the good energy that people feel when we’re performing — it is genuine energy that’s radiating, and people pick up on that.”
Baba Chuck Davis (now deceased) picked up on their energy when he visited a rehearsal in 2000. The group’s shared sense of unity and respect caught his attention, he later wrote in an email. “There was absolutely no cat-fighting and no egomaniacs on board,” wrote Davis. “These women knew exactly what they were doing and were into their music for the long haul. Sister Omelika was respected, and thus the repertoire could grow by leaps and bounds.”
In 2008, Davis invited Giwayen Mata to perform at DanceAfrica in Brooklyn. A local newspaper profiled Kuumba’s homecoming, and the audience response was overwhelming.
Giwayen Mata also performed at DanceAfrica in Chicago and Dallas that year, with subsequent tours to Dallas in 2009 and 2011 and Denver in 2012. In 2013, Giwayen Mata again represented Atlanta as a featured company at DanceAfrica in Brooklyn. It was the same year, Giwayen Mata’s 20th-anniversary year, that Kuumba realized a vision she’d long had — to bring together as many Atlanta-based African dance companies as she could with African dance companies under Baba Chuck Davis’ leadership in a DanceAfrica Atlanta festival. The festival pulled the community together and helped weave Giwayen Mata more tightly into the national African dance conversation.
In 2014, the company created and produced This Mother’s Daughter, a life-affirming story of a young woman’s journey to find healing and a supportive community through her cultural roots.
The following year, Salute to Men addressed the struggles of African American men, casting light on pressing issues of racial profiling, gang violence and police brutality. The production included news clips of repeated police shootings, each time with no indictment, and the true story of a middle-school-aged boy, forbidden to play with water guns for fear someone might mistake the intent and put his life at risk. It was perhaps Giwayen Mata’s most hard-hitting production.
“People who said anything about it appreciated the fact that we were unedited, in a sense,” Kuumba said. “As Africans in America, we’ve been fighting for our lives since we were enslaved. Some of us were here before the Mayflower, but we’ve been fighting to survive. We were getting shot down every week, and we’re still getting shot down. The piece gave people a needed release from the pain of it all. Because now somebody was talking about it in a way that they could experience it and still have some artistic relief in the midst of it.”
Despite those difficult moments, there have been sweet ones — including numerous awards and civic honors. She proudly recalls drumming at Morehouse College’s graduation ceremony in 2013 when President Obama delivered the commencement address. And Kuumba fondly remembers holding an infant grandchild in her lap as she attended an award ceremony at the State Capitol to receive the 2016 Secretary of State Outstanding Citizen Award.
On December 5, 2016, Kuumba was hit by the car in East Point. Two weeks later, with four broken bones in her left foot and damaged ligaments in her knee, Kuumba played 15 Black Nativity shows at the Southwest Arts Center propped up on crutches, before undergoing surgery in January. Doctors put in metal plates and screws, which they removed in a second surgery six months later.
The experience had made an impression. “When your life is spared, it causes you to really see what’s important and how you choose to proceed,” Kuumba said. She felt she was given a second chance, and she wanted to make the best of that blessing. “I needed to continue to grow, and the company needed to grow in ways that I might not have been able to give them.”
Kuumba made the decision to retire during Giwayen Mata’s 24th summer. “But,” she said, “then the spirits said, ‘No, you’re not, not at 24 years. You get ready to do this 25th season, and you are going to lead Giwayen Mata with grace and dignity.’ And that was what I did.”
Kuumba has founded her own business, which she has named Sistah with a Nia, LLC. The company’s acronym is SWAN, and it provides a platform for Kuumba to perform, choreograph, teach, arrange music and pursue other ways of bringing creativity into people’s lives.
She’s using her newfound freedom to spend time with family and work with artists she has long respected. And like her grandfather, a doctorate may be in her future. She wants to study more instruments, produce a one-woman show, write, travel and talk with “indigenous women who are dancers and drummers.”
Last summer, Sule Greg Wilson, author of The Drummer’s Path, contacted Kuumba. In the book, published in 1992, Wilson discussed reasons why women should not drum, Kuumba said. He called Kuumba to ask for the names of all Giwayen Mata’s women drummers as well as input and feedback on his book, Kuumba said, so he could update the book to include the women of Giwayen Mata.
To see someone change his stance on women and drumming is one of the things that has made the work and sacrifice worthwhile, Kuumba said.
This kind of visibility has been essential to Giwayen Mata’s success, along with scholarship, artistic excellence and respect for ancestral traditions. At the heart of Kuumba’s work is the celebration of each individual’s authentic self, and how that empowers a group. And even though the struggles have been real — sometimes intense — Kuumba has found a deep wellspring of joy.
Some years ago, a Yoruba priest and friend asked Kuumba, “You know how sometimes you hear the voice of the ancestors?”
“No,” she said honestly. But she believed him.
Months later, Kuumba was drumming, from her heart, at a friend’s funeral. And something amazing happened. “I was hearing the singing in there,” she said. “It sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard.”
It was an ethereal sound — higher pitched like a siren, but otherworldly. Since then, Kuumba has come to recognize that voice when she hears it, and she knows to surrender to its power.
It’s like a runner’s high, she said. “The moment that you feel like you’re getting tired, releasing and relaxing into the rhythm of the movement, it gives you energy to go a little bit further and play a little bit longer and breathe better so you can continue to just be in it,” Kuumba said. “It’s sweet. It’s exhilarating.”