Cheryl Keyes, a professor of ethnomusicology and global jazz studies at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, made headlines this past year as a member of a committee that helped select music for the Smithsonian Museum’s long-awaited “Smithsonian Anthology of Hip Hop and Rap.”
That marks one of the latest accomplishments for Keyes, who is also chair of African American studies. When the Smithsonian set about creating an anthology of vital hip-hop recordings in 2014, they assembled a 10-person team of leading industry professionals, journalists, musicians and academics who nominated 900 songs. Keyes was the lone woman academic selected for the committee, sharing space with industry luminaries including 9th Wonder and Chuck D of Public Enemy. The “Smithsonian Anthology of Hip Hop and Rap” was released in August.
Keyes found her passion for music early on. In sixth grade, while watching her older brother perform in a high school band concert, Keyes decided she wanted to play the flute. She was already studying piano, and her life was filled with music. Why the flute? “I admired the flautists. They were always the ones sitting in the front row in concert band,” Keyes said. “And I wanted to sit in the front row.”
The front row has been her place ever since. Scholarly chops aside, Keyes was first and foremost a musician and composer. She recorded her first song, “CK Blues” in the 1970s, while a music major at Xavier University of Louisiana. Keyes went on to earn a doctorate, has produced two award-winning albums on her own record label and authored a prize-winning book on the ethnography of hip-hop and rap. Her four decades of field research all over the world is housed at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.