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Queen of Smoke: Meet the Badass Woman Taking Over South Africa's Spinning Scene

A day in the life of South Africa's 'Queen of Smoke,' Stacey-Lee May.

We stand in the line at the Swazi-South African border, and talk smack to pass the time—so loud that folks at the back of the line are laughing at the stupid shit we’re saying. It’s midday, it’s hot as hell, and we’re all gatvol of hearing the sounds of diehard bikers revving their engines throughout the night, just for nje. I’m with the car spinners. Not the bikers. Apparently you can’t be into both.


We get to the front of the line. The immigration officer stamps my passport and proceeds to flag Stacey, my companion.

“You! You’re under-age, where’s your birth certificate?”

Confused, Stacey chimes in her high-pitched voice, “I’m twenty!”

The officer double-checks the passport sitting in front of her, “Oh. But you look so cute and small!”

Photo by Zara Julius. Photo by Zara Julius.

Stacey has been getting called “cute” and “little” and “sweet” and “baby-faced” the whole weekend at the Swazi Bike Rally—and folks can’t seem to believe that she spins cars as fearlessly as she does.

Representing Eldorado Park, Stacey-Lee May has only been spinning cars for two years, but she has already become a crowd favourite. She’s the only female spinner of her caliber in Gauteng, and one of just three women who spin regularly on the national circuit. Apart from her ability to flip her pink and grey BMW 325 gusheshe, Stacey’s talent is in her stunts. She throws a “doughnut,” hops out the car whilst the car is still spinning, hops back in, sits on the edge of her window, and hangs out her car upside down, her straightened ponytail just barely scraping a pitch engulfed in smoke.

Photo by Zara Julius. Photo by Zara Julius.

With the ever-tightening apartheid regime in South Africa, the 1980s gave rise to heightened social dislocation and a thriving gangster culture in Johannesburg’s outer-laying areas such as Soweto, where spinning was born. Here, it became ritual for gangsters to steal a car and spin it at funerals in honour of those members who had passed. During the 90s, kids took spinning to the street, and developed the scene outside of the criminal world, experimenting with drifting, stunts and drag racing. Today, spinning has been decriminalized and has developed into an extreme sport part of a profitable industry, with a growing network of promoters, spinners, and supporters.

On weekdays, Stacey is a law and finance student. On weekends, she travels across southern Africa with her entire family to spin at shows. Her mother, Lizel, is the momager, and her father, Lester, tows the spin car on the back of his Fortuner. Stacey usually rolls with her sister and their boyfriends in a separate car, whilst her little brother rides with mom and dad. On any given round, it’s either Stacey’s younger sister, Jamie, or her younger brother, Adam, who act as her co-pilot. And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch Adam taking the gusheshe for a spin on the pitch, even though he’s just twelve, and his head barely makes it past the dashboard. This is Team Stacey.

Photo by Zara Julius. Photo by Zara Julius.

Photo by Zara Julius. Photo by Zara Julius.

When people hear that I’ve been spending time at spin shows, they often ask, “But what’s the point? Is there a winner?”. The short answer is “No, it’s just entertainment.” But the competitive element of spinning is nuanced.

A big part of the spin game is the mechanics of the car—how does it sound, and what kinds of conversions have been done? Whilst it’s become a trend for some cats to throw v8 engines into old gusheshes, Stacey and her mechanic insist on using a 325 engine to keep that authentic explosive BMW sound.

Spinners spin to be “the best,” and the game is laden with machismo, but there are no clear-cut criteria on what constitutes the best. Some are best at drifting, some are best at doing ‘crazy flips,’ and like Stacey, some are best at doing stunts. A spinner only knows that they’re the best by gauging the reaction of the crowds clinging to the edge of the pitch, hungry for smoke, the smell of burned rubber and the sound of tyres popping.

Watch Stacey in the music video for Branko’s “Let Me Go” featuring Nonku Phiri and Mr. Carmack. Keep up with Team Stacey May on Facebook.

Zara Julius is a social researcher and visual storyteller with a background in anthropology and photography.

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Photo by Polly Irungu

Photos: A Night of ‘Cocoa and Color’ at Okay Space for Tony’s Chocolonely and Joshua Kissi’s ‘Reframed’ Exhibition

The exhibition, currently showing at Okay Space Gallery, advocates for fair practices in the West African chocolate industry.

What happened when cocoa hero Tony's Chocolonely and creative wonder kid Joshua Kissi rolled up to the Okay Space on the same night? Chocolate-y magic and sweet enlightenment. The two entities have been working together on a project called REFRAMED: Cocoa and Color aimed at shifting the perspective on the West African cocoa farmers who make Chocolonely's delectable bars.

The project kicked off its first US exhibition with us at the Okay Space Gallery in early October, where brightly colored chocolate bars of all sizes covered the tables as attendees had their pick of a variety of Tony Chocolonely's chocolate. Anywhere you looked, there was chocolate and smiles. The only time folks stopped munching on chocolate was to take a bite of the fantastic cuisine—jollof rice, fried plantains and beef skewers—from Gold Coast Catering and plantain ice cream from Kelewele NYC. The room was packed with a diverse and wonderful crowd, excited to interact with Kissi's work and curious about learning how the chocolate brand was focused on empowering Africans and African economies. DJ GFlamee created the perfect atmosphere with tunes that highlighted the region and made a Thursday feel more like a Friday.

The highlight of the night, however, was a live Q&A session between Joshua Kissi and Dena White, Tony Chocolonely's head of marketing for the US. Kissi created the concept and took photos of the people in Ghana and the Ivory Coast working to create the chocolate the world adores. Together, they discussed the methods and importance of Tony Chololonely's fight to end slave labor in the cocoa industry. It was illuminating to have the session with the faces of those being honored surrounding us, looking on, being included in something that has long been swept under the rug.

While the chocolate has all been gobbled up, Kissi's striking photos will stay on display at the gallery until October 31st.

Check out some of the action from the event below, with photos by Polly Irungu.

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Photos: Here's What 'An OkayAfrica Party' at Lot 45 Looked Like

Pictures from 'An OkayAfrica Party' in Brooklyn with AQ, DJ Mohogany, Legend and Sydney Love.

The latest edition of An OkayAfrica Party at Lot 45 was a night to remember.

All roads led to the Bushwick for another installment of our packed-out parties that see us take over Lot 45. The sounds of the nights hit all of the best afro-fusion cuts you'd want to hear right now and featured sets from AQ, DJ Mohogany, Legend and Sydney Love.

To see what you missed out on (or recollect the night) check out these photos below, all taken by Kevain D. Delpesche.

Take a look.

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6 Things We Learned About African Migration to Europe in 2019 From a New UN Report

UNDP representatives presented their "Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe" report last night at Okay Space. Here's what we found out.

Yesterday, Okay Space hosted a discussion between UN luminaries Ahunna Eziakonwa, Mohamed Yahya and OkayAfrica CEO, Abiola Oke about the new UNDP report, Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe. The report examines young Africans who are leaving their homes to make the dangerous journey to Europe for economic opportunities—not solely for asylum or to escape persecution. The evening was both enlightening and sobering, and the main findings may be a little different than what you might expect.

Immigration to Europe from Africa is roughly 90 percent lower than what it was in 2015.

In 2015, slightly over 1 million Africans left for Europe. In 2018, it was just over 100,000. However, the percentage of those who drown on the journey has increased. In 2015, it was 1.6 percent of that million, while it grew to 2 percent in 2018. Meaning just over 2,000 people died enroute in 2018 alone. It is a disturbing factor that, four years on, more people are dying proportionately than when the large migrations began.

Even though most of Africa is rural, most of the youth leaving the continent for economic reasons are from the urban areas.


85 percent of those who the report identified came from urban cities or towns, though only 45 percent of Africans overall live in those urban areas. This means that most of them are coming from regions with "relatively low levels of deprivation." Analysts believe the rapid urbanization of many African cities could be a contributing factor. Benin City, Nigeria, for instance, has urbanized 122 percent in only ten years. These cities cannot actually support the people—and their ambitions and talents—who live there. It plateaus and does not allow for further upward mobility.

Only 2 percent of those who left say knowing the dangers would have deterred them.

This means 98 percent would do it again, despite the knowledge of fatalities and difficulties in crossing. The appeal of elsewhere is greater than death. This realization is crucial for all nations to better comprehend the true elements belying migration, particularly for those that this report is concerned with. Of the 1,970 migrants from 39 African countries interviewed for the report, almost all of them are willing to face death for economic opportunities abroad than stay home. As most of the migrants had relatively comfortable lives at home, they are not migrating to flee death or persecution as with asylum seekers. This prompts great questions and led the report to look at the issue from four angles: home life in Africa, motivations for leaving, life in Europe, motivations for returning.

58 percent of those who left were employed or in school in their home country.

Not only that, in almost every demographic and country, those who left had a considerably higher amount of education than their peers. From Malu, those leaving had an average of five years of education, compared to one year with peers in their age group and two years for the national average. In Cameroon, those leaving had an average 12 years, their peers had seven and the national average of six. Even when broken down by gender, both men and women who leave have about nine years of education while the national average is five and three, respectively.

Though the average African family size is five, most of those who leave have an average family size of 10.

When asked, migrants said their main motivation to leave is to send money home. This information is important as it may impact the motivations for needing to leave. The report reasons that an increase in population may also be playing a role in the motivations to leave. It was also reported that those who go abroad and find work send an average 90 percent of their earnings to their families. Essentially, they are leaving existing jobs to live on 10 percent of their new wage, highlighting that working below minimum wage in Europe is more prosperous.

Though 70 percent of those in Europe said they wanted to stay permanently, those who were working were more likely to want to return to their home country.

Conversely, the majority of those who did want to stay in Europe were not earning anything, 64 percent of them, and 67 percent did not have a legal right to work. Over half of those who did want to return home had a legal right to work. Analysts reason that those who did want to stay would likely change their mind once they had an income. This correlation speaks to a significant relationship between work and migration permanence. It also underlines the claim that migration for this group is focused solely on economic results as opposed to social factors.


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What was most striking about the event, however, was the strong feeling communicated in the space about exchanges between Africans regarding what needs to be done. The discussion did not only surround the facts and figures alone, but also the humanity behind understanding why people migrate. At one point, when addressing the crowd of various influential people on the continent and in the diaspora, Eziakonwa said "What are we missing here? What are we doing by leaving young Africans out of the development discussion? Our programs are clearly failing our African youth."

Later, Yahya responded to a question by stating there was certainly a cultural barrier in which Africans do not often address, listen to or respect the youth. "I can say by looking at you that no one in this room would be given a true say," he said. "This is clearly part of the issue." When asked what can be done by others, the response was to work to change the narrative, to focus on prosperity rather than charity and to provide better access and platforms for African youth to share their stories so that the idea of who migrants are shifts. And so we, as Africans, can better know ourselves.

Check out some photos from last night below with photos from Polly Irungu. Follow and share in the changing of that narrative via #ScalingFencesUNDP and #MyJourney.

Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu

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Anjel Boris, Question Mark, 2019, Acrylic and posca on canvas, 133 by 7cm. Image courtesy of Out Of Africa and @artxlagos

What You Need to Know About ArtXLagos 2019

We talked to artistic director of ArtXLagos, Tayo Ogunbiyi, about Lagos's unique art scene and what's to expect from West Africa's biggest art party.

OkayAfrica is a media partner of ArtXLagos 2019.

In three years, ArtXLagos has successfully established itself as West Africa's premier art fair, cementing its reputation as a center of culture for the entire region. Since its founding by Tokoni Peterside in 2016, the art fair has attracted exhibitors, art buyers and members of the West African art scene and beyond—providing a platform for both emerging and established artists and playing a notable role in the global art ecosystem.

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