For Cheryl Keyes, the celebration has been a long time coming.

Ever since Juneteenth (June 19) became the newest federal holiday in 2021, Keyes, chair of the UCLA Department of African American Studies, has been carefully planning how she could best commemorate it on a big Bruin scale.

Everyone is invited to see how her hard work and dedication will pay off June 5 at Royce Hall with UCLA’s inaugural Prelude to Juneteenth Day Celebration: Honoring Our Past, Celebrating Our Future, a free multimedia event that incorporates a variety of creative, academic and inspiring voices.

“I want to celebrate Black life with a lineup of artists and educators whose work will titillate the soul and reflect the incredible interdisciplinary scholarship of our department,” said Keyes, who produced the event. “We took the time and put the passion into making this program something that celebrates inclusive excellence, community engagement and the rich history of the Black experience.”

During the long and thoughtful planning process, the event’s shape really began to crystallize after Keyes had a serendipitous conversation with Earl Stewart, an acclaimed composer and associate professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara. Inspired by her vision, he revealed that he had a very special connection to the holiday.

During his last year of graduate school, Stewart became interested in Juneteenth when his colleague Melvin Wade shared his research on an article about the actual activities that took place on the day. He also discovered that Wade’s mentor was one of the top Black Texas legislators who successfully led the push for Juneteenth to become a state holiday in 1980. Having learned about its true meaning, Stewart decided that Juneteenth should be commemorated by a symphony.

“While working on the composition, I began to see Juneteenth as something more than just a celebration of the freedom of Black people from slavery. To me, Juneteenth also symbolized the political birth of the African American race,” Stewart said. “Although Africans Americans gave themselves specific names before their liberation, we were not officially recognized as a specific people in America until after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a complete honor for me to participate in this UCLA celebration and premiere my Juneteenth symphony.”

Another aspect that Keyes wanted to illuminate in the celebration is the idea that Black history did not begin with American enslavement, but with great empires in Africa. And so Keyes, who is also a professor of ethnomusicology and global jazz studies, composed her own piece for orchestra, “Sundiata Keita Overture,” named in honor of the royal founder of the Mali Empire. Like Stewart’s “Symphony #4: Juneteenth,” it will receive its world premiere at the event.

The event’s lineup of artists also includes actor Abdoulaye N’Gom, emcee James Janisse, freestyle lyricist Medusa the Gangsta Goddess and guest conductor Antoine T. Clark, among other luminaries.

“To participate in this particular celebration and return to the community that nurtured me as a scholar, an artist and an engaged citizen is an honor and a privilege,” said choreographer/dancer Bernard Brown, who earned an MFA from UCLA in 2017. “Supporting the arts supports the best of humanity. Come and be moved by the beauty and truth of Black music and dance!” 

“I’m hoping that my musical performance is received as the sum of my own personal ancestry in America,” said violinist Karen Briggs, who is also known as the “Lady in Red.” “Fundamentally, I see myself as a sum of those that came before me and in a way that could have only come authentically from the legacy of the African American spirit. I am proud to be able to present this aspect of my culture through the voice of the violin.”

The event is likely to be as educational as it is emotionally moving, whether attendees are already knowledgeable about the history and meaning of Juneteenth or are learning about it for the first time.

“UCLA is fortunate to have such a remarkable department, led with such creativity, wisdom and compassion. It is no surprise that professor and department chair Cheryl Keyes has set and achieved her vision of creating an event as powerful, uplifting and resonant as this important occasion deserves,” said Abel Valenzuela, dean of the UCLA Division of Social Sciences. “I encourage everyone to attend this important celebration and to carry its message of history, hope and healing forward.”