Tomiko Iyalla: Oakland Afrobeats ambassador

Tomiko Iyalla talks about her connection with Afrobeats The post Tomiko Iyalla: Oakland Afrobeats ambassador appeared first on San Francisco Bay View.

Tomiko Iyalla: Oakland Afrobeats ambassador
Tomiko-Iyalla-Oakland-Dancer-scaled, Tomiko Iyalla: Oakland Afrobeats ambassador, World News & Views
Oakland native dance instructor and model Tomiko Iyalla promotes Afrobeats and African diasporic connections through her work.

by Eric Hunter

The unification of diasporan and continental Africans is a core principle of pan-Africanism. Our culture connects us. When we examine things like our music, dance, art and food, we have more similarities than differences. This understanding is a weapon against colonialism and neocolonialism, which uses the tactic of divide and conquer to control, oppress and exploit us. 

Over the last few years, the genre of music called Afrobeats has taken the world by storm. The same melanin magic that manifests in Hip-Hop and Reggae music has exploded in the motherland and started to spread its influence all around the world.

I’ve had the honor and opportunity to talk to Tomiko Iyalla, an Oakland native, Afrobeats dance maestro and cultural influencer. She shares her story, experience, views and opinions on what’s going on in the vibrant cultural landscape in Oakland and around the world. She is a major factor in the Afrobeat music and dance scene. Tomiko’s journey is a testament to her passion for dance and her dedication to promoting Afrobeat culture. 

Tomiko-Iyalla-dancing-, Tomiko Iyalla: Oakland Afrobeats ambassador, World News & Views
For Tomiko Iyalla, dance is one way she contributes to the discussion of pan-Africanism, spirituality and her Nigerian heritage.

As an Afrobeat dance instructor, she not only imparts the technical nuances of this energetic and infectious dance form but also infuses it with the rich cultural elements that define Afrobeats. Her classes are not just about movement; they are a celebration of heritage, a fusion of rhythm and history that transcends borders.

Ref: Tell us a bit about your background and how you became a dance instructor and event promoter.

Miko: In about 2017 I started promoting. It wasn’t even on purpose. I was working in education, but I did a few modeling gigs here and there. I consistently went to this party and the curator of this party asked me one day if I wanted to promote. So from there, I continued to promote this party and people started to catch wind and notice me dancing at these events and parties. Different people started asking me to promote their events. It was the same way with becoming a dance instructor. It’s funny because I remember when I was still learning and I had no idea about Afrobeat as a genre of dance. I was just listening and loving the music and I would try to take classes and people would shun me, turn me down, and didn’t take me seriously like I was just a party girl. They had no idea how I grew up dancing. Dancing has always been a part of my life. 

I started taking dance more seriously in 2019. I had a trip I was supposed to go on. To fundraise for this trip I held a small dance class in the basement of a place called Oakstop in downtown Oakland. The class is called “Afro Flow,” but “IJO Flow” is the theme. Ijo means “to dance” in the Yoruba language. Yoruba is one of the most popular known tribes in Nigeria. 

So I got a dance residency in Senegal to study dance. When you start a new class, you have to build up the rapport. You have to build up the following, and people tell me all the time, “I wanna learn from you,” but they don’t ever really come to class. So it’s either hit or miss those things, and that’s OK.

After my trip to Senegal, from there I went on to teach online via Zoom or other small studios within the area of my other hometown in the central coast of Cali. I was trying to introduce a new style of dance that may be fun and contagious. I figured it’d be a perfect area to promote Afrobeat dance as cardio fitness. I was exploring different ways to teach and instruct, reaching out to small studios and that was the process from 2019-2021. 

I moved back into the Bay Area in 2021. I’d built a reputation for myself as a dancer throughout all these years from 2016-2019. People recognized me as a dancer of Afrobeats dance. I was already an instructor. I would do light work and little workshops traveling from the Central Coast to the Bay Area to perform, choreograph, and host parties. I was just going through different ciphers and networking and someone approached and asked me to start instructing at this Line Dance studio in San Francisco of Alonzo King. It’s like a pivotal point in my life. I’m very proud.

Ref: Everyone I know who knows you tells me you have a magnetic personality. How have you been able to effectively apply what you’ve learned from modeling to dance instruction and event promotion?

Miko: To be honest, I was a freelance model. I didn’t have an agent so I had to learn by myself. I had to learn and practice in the mirror and build up the confidence to be able to stand in front of the camera, pose and be comfortable. As charismatic as people think I am, I’m very very shy. I’m very soft-spoken. I’m not a “rah-rah” type of person. I’ve always thought that the energy comes with the vibe. If the vibe is good, I’m good. 

I didn’t really learn through modeling. I just learned naturally to be around different people and network. Some of my closest friends are boss chicks who network very well. So I watched them do it and took what I saw them do and started applying it myself. I’m not one to just jump out there in the crowd, even in my dance. I don’t try to demand a crowd. I allow things to flow as they naturally do. If there is a song playing that I know and love; I’m jumping on the dance floor!  

When it comes to dance instructing and event promotion, I am just naturally being me. When I teach classes, I always get excited because even when they are beginners, I have confidence that they can do this. It just takes a lot of practice. When it comes to Afro dance, Afrobeats dance in particular, a lot of people want to learn the “step-by-step 1-2-3” choreography, but I don’t think African people learn that way. I think a lot of the way we learn is through the rhythmic patterns. 

When you’re able to catch the pattern of the rhythm within your feet and your soul, deep within your body and space, you will be able to pick up the dances more. When music is played, it doesn’t matter if it’s a slow-paced song or a fast-paced song; you can translate it through any type of music. I try my best to teach that in my classes. 

I’ve heard people say Afrobeats dance is challenging. And yes there are rules, there are techniques, and there is a lot of history behind these movements. If you’re going to do it, it has to be done correctly. You’re not gonna appropriate my culture for your benefit

When it comes to event promotion, I think about my love for words and wordplay. I have a gift that allows me to catch the audience’s eye. I can speak to different people from different demographics. That’s what I strive for in event promotion. It’s all about naturally being myself and just allowing my natural talents to shine. If people rock with it, they rock with it. and if they don’t, they don’t, and that’s OK.

Ref: How big of a role does your heritage and spirituality play in this lifestyle?

Miko: I love this question! It’s everything to me! My heritage and my spirituality is literally my entire life. I grew up as a Black American but I’m Nigerian by blood. That’s my birthright. But I grew up in a very Black American environment. The funny thing about that is I didn’t understand what it meant to be African in American society. It wasn’t until I got older in my 20s. I thank Oakland because Oakland was a very pivotal place for me to learn about my spirituality and my ancestry. I’ve tapped into it before but not as much as when I came into openness, being out and getting to know people and going to events. In Oakland, there are a lot of different people here. You have people from different cultures and backgrounds. 

There are a lot of people that are Black American and have African descent but they’re not fully sure what part of Africa their people descended from. Some of them take on the roles of priestesses or priests of the Yoruba tradition or different African spiritualities. This can be dangerous, but it can also be a very beautiful thing. You have to be very careful with that because people carry different spirits. 

When I was first coming into the scene, a lot of people would see me call out my power to certain priests of Ifa and like from Puerto Rico and Yoruba in Nigeria, and I would go back to my mother and tell her about what I’ve learned and it never surprised her because she already knew what kind of spirit I have. It’s in my blood. 

There were also a lot of qualms with me when I was growing up because growing up it wasn’t cool to be African. I was teased by family members. I was teased by my classmates. You know just being an African kid in America being teased by other kids, you’re gonna wanna disengage with that. So there was a point in my life where anything African I didn’t want anything to do with it and I think I kind of just ignored that part of me for a very long time. It just started to come to the surface as I got older, kind of just like a cup that has already reached its limit and it just keeps getting poured into when you’re trying to put a cap on it and you can’t close it completely, and then it’s just like boiling over. That’s what was happening. 

I was going through this whole phase of unlearning and relearning what it means to be Nigerian American, what it means to be African in an American society – and what it means to be literally African American in the Bay Area. I see many Black American people who take on certain ways of spirituality that they think are the truth because they read about or got it off Google, and that can be problematic. I run into problems with certain communities often in the spiritual sense because I actually have in my bloodline what many people are trying to learn about for cultural reconstructive purposes. It’s the same with dances like these dances. I didn’t know these dances. I had to learn them, but naturally, I felt the rhythms in my body and I picked it up and I practiced. There was a moment when people would criticize me from all angles. It’s like I’m “too Nigerian” to be accepted by certain Black American communities but not Nigerian enough for certain Nigerian communities because I wasn’t born or raised in Nigeria! That’s crazy!

I have to shout-out my mother for always supporting my quest for knowledge and understanding and being kind to people no matter what walk of life, my father for loving me unconditionally even overseas when we were disconnected, and my aunt. I have an aunt who since I was little, her and my great grandmother they always pushed. They wanted to let me make sure I knew that I was African and I’m very special and I thank them for that because, yeah, it’s made me who I am today.

Ref: With the rising popularity and global commercialization of Afrobeat Afro tech and Afro-fusion, do you feel like the culture is getting watered down?

Miko: Oh, yes, for sure, the culture is getting watered down, but it’s like a sweet taboo, because for so long it wasn’t OK to be African. It wasn’t OK for us to take pride in our culture. We had all these negative stigmas around us – that we were “too Black”; we were “too weird.” 

Now it’s a whole experience and this is what we’ve been trying to get people to realize from the beginning. Like Yo, Embrace Africa! Come to Africa! Don’t just take away from Africa. Embrace us because we’re such a beautiful culture. 

We’re one of the most intelligent cultures and people diminish that in so many different ways. So many doctors and scientists are from Nigeria, Ghana and all over West Africa. I think it’s a beautiful thing to see Afrobeats and Afro-fusion in the dance become mainstream, but I don’t always like to see when non-people of color are teaching classes. I think if you’re going to teach an African-inspired class, you need to be African. It has to be in your roots somewhere. I don’t want to see a bunch of white people teaching an Afro-beats class

Africa has given the world so much. The whole continent of Africa has given the world so much, and it would be amazing to see people pour back into Africa the proper way because there’s so much that they need help with. Not too long ago a good portion of Nigeria was flooded. I wish people would think of more of the resources that we need. I’d love to see it become more popular. Yes! Now do I want it to hit mainstream with all these nonpeople of color? No! I don’t like these fusion songs with  Justin Timberlake and Selena Gomez. We don’t need you guys on our tracks to make it appealing to white people.

Ref: Do you think the connection between hip hop reggae and Afrobeat is unifying the Africans on the continent and the Africans of the diaspora?

Miko: I do think that there is a connection and it is connecting us more. “Afrobeats to the world!” We’ve been hearing this for a couple of years now. I think since like 2020 we’ve been saying “Afro-fusion to the world!” or “Amapiano to the world!” 

“Amapiano” is a very new genre of music from South Africa and its origins come from the South African sounds of Gqom” and then their old school house music style called “Kwaito.”  When you merge those two and you put a lot of piano instrumentals in there, you end up getting “Amapiano.”  It came into the scene during the pandemic and is now globally taking over sound when it comes to Afrobeats within the diaspora. 

Everybody, Afro beats, dancehall, hip-hop, everyone is now mimicking this “Amapiano”  piano sound in their own form. This is just an example of how beautiful it is to see people of other cultures or other places within the diaspora take on and on the continent take one sound and merge it to make it their own. That’s what we do in Hip Hop, that’s what people have done in Pop and R&B. I like to see how it unifies people in general because music and dance are very communal. Fela Kuti said a long time ago in his documentary: “You don’t play around with music, music is very spiritual.” 

I think with Afro beats is a very spiritual journey. When you’re dancing to these songs, when you’re listening to this music, you’re going on a journey. Africans have a tradition of storytelling. Everyone has a way of storytelling in their unique way. Africans just do storytelling in the form of taking you on a journey. For example, I’ll tell a friend to come to the store with me and we’re gonna make at least five stops because we’re gonna run into at least 10 people you know and you’re gonna make stops along the way. That’s the beautiful thing about Afro-beats. it’s not about the destination per se it’s about the journey along the way. And I think that tells a lot about the music that we listen to. The dances have evolved, the music is evolving and we should be evolving with it.

As an Oakland native with Nigerian roots, Tomiko Iyalla represents the bridge between two worlds, using her influence to enrich the cultural exchange between these diverse communities. Her impact is felt not only in the rhythm of the dance but also in the hearts of those who have been touched by the cultural resonance she brings to every event and class. 

In the realm of Afrobeat, Tomiko Iyalla is more than an instructor and promoter; she is a cultural ambassador, weaving a narrative of unity, celebration, and pride through the universal language of dance.

Beyond the studio, Tomiko is a dope event promoter, putting together spaces where people gather and fellowship that serve as epicenters for the celebration of Afrobeat music and dance. She brings together communities, fostering a sense of unity and shared joy. Tomiko’s commitment to promoting Afrobeat extends beyond the dance floor; the knowledge she shares will wake your game all the way up! 

Journalist Eric Hunter (E Da Ref), an Oakland native, is Minister of Public Relations for the Black Riders Liberation Party and Co-Editor of African Intercommunal News Service. He can be reached at  

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