Published: Aug. 25, 2016
Teena Marie Custer

This fall, CU Boulder brings street culture to the stage with [UN] W.R.A.P.: Women of the Cypher, a weekend-long performance event bringing together renowned female Hip-Hop scholars, artists and enthusiasts for a critical and creative exchange. From breaking to waacking to DJing, no facet of Hip-Hop will go unexplored at the event, which takes place Sept. 23-25 at CU Boulder’s Charlotte York Irey Theatre.

Hip-Hop has only recently been a research focus inside higher education, says dance division director Erika Randall. It’s rarer still to focus specifically on females within Hip-Hop culture. She’s more than happy to help start the conversation

“We’re just really committed to causing trouble in the Theatre & Dance department, in the best possible way,” Randall says. “When students and teachers start to explore a culture that started on the streets, they question everything they know about institutionalized learning, fusion, women...and so many other things. I get really excited about that.”

If talking about Hip-Hop culture doesn’t prompt audiences to rethink the status quo, watching the [UN] W.R.A.P. performances certainly will. Some of the featured performers, known as b-girls, learned their epic moves on the street rather than at the barre.

B-girl Teena Marie Custer, a featured performer and Randall’s longtime best friend, is one of those artists who didn’t go to school to hone her Hip-Hop skills. Randall says “the two of us are like ‘Save the Last Dance’ come to life: I’m classically trained and she comes from really deep street training, but we’ve found we’re more similar than different.”

As a child in Pittsburgh, Custer desperately wanted to take ballet lessons, but her family didn’t have the money for them. Her only dance outlet, she says, was “to go to Hip-Hop clubs, dance with my friends or put a hat out and copy moves from MTV. That was my early dance training.” Later, she received formal training in modern dance and used elements of that to create her own unique style of urban dance theater. In the [UN] W.R.A.P. performance, Custer will unveil “My Good Side,” an exploration of our social media culture through street dance.

Hip-Hop, a subculture encompassing music performance, emceeing, DJing, graffiti art and breaking, was born on the streets of the Bronx in the 1970s and soon spread to other major urban areas. Among the early female street icons was Asia One, who has danced with the Black Eyed Peas, Rock Steady Crew and Zulu Nation. As a biracial child in Denver’s diverse Park Hill neighborhood, she never felt she belonged anywhere until she found refuge in the local Hip-Hop community. In her teen years, Asia established herself as a b-girl and graffiti artist and set up an after school dance studio for kids.

“In my area, you didn’t go on the side of town you weren’t from—you couldn’t,” she says. “So I opened up a Hip-Hop shop in an area that was neutral to gangs. Anybody could go without feeling like they would get jumped or like they were a traitor, and they met people they never would have met otherwise.”

In her ever-expanding quest to unite people from different worlds, Asia will bring together the local collective Queenz of Hip-Hop, the music group Analog Girls and other Colorado street artists for her [UN] W.R.A.P. piece, which delves into Hip-Hop’s historical roots.

Asia, the subject of a short documentary selected for the Hollywood Film Festival in 2013, says she’s faced plenty of gender discrimination in her career and can’t wait for the female-focused weekend on campus.

“I’ll be waiting to go on stage and someone will think I’m a groupie,” she says. “The idea of a woman breaking kind of mystifies some people. When I’m breaking, out of the corner of my ear, I’ve heard, ‘A girl? Really?’”

But by and large, she says, the Hip-Hop community is diverse and inclusive, a far cry from the homophobic, misogynist world many people believe it is. She hopes the weekend summit in Boulder helps a broader audience understand that.

“Whether or not you’re down with Hip-Hop,” she says, “the values that it embraces...if we could put [those] in society on a mass level, we’d have a beautiful world.”

Visit this page to find out more about [UN] W.R.A.P. and to buy tickets.