The Culture Report: Baltimore Bikelife hits the streets of Accra

Published 1/1/2023 6:00 a.m. EST

A motorcyclist with Dirt 2 Streets rides in the 29th annual Kingdom Day Parade on January 20, 2014.

Back in 2019, when I was a senior editor at music and culture magazine The FADER, I found myself in an Instagram wormhole of the growing international popularity of dirt biking. As many of us know, dirt bikes are as synonymous with the Baltimore experience as steamed crabs and chicken boxes. Local residents have coined the city as the dirt bike capital of the U.S., though riders up in Philadelphia would be the first to contest that title. Nonetheless, it’s just as much ours as it’s anyone else’s. Motorized bikes first hit Baltimore, and a host of other cities in the country, from Europe in the early ’70s. And at that time, people rode them in parks and other property with a considerable amount of grass to ride on. A decade later, it became illegal for riders to use public property as their race courses. That’s when the dirt bike culture we now know, love or detest (depending on how uptight you are) began to form.

Riders hit the city streets and developed a new culture of trying to collectively accomplish daredevil-like stunts on Baltimore’s avenues. The trend became so widespread that it was the basis of early-to-mid-2000s YouTube series by local bike groups like the Wow Boyz. By 2013, dirt bike culture hit the big screen when former MICA student Lotfy Nathan’s film “12 O’Clock Boys” was released, following a kid named Pug whose biggest dream in life was to become a member of the crew of the same name. Another bike phenom around that same time was Chino Braxton, who didn’t get much airtime in the film, but is, by all accounts, the most successful street dirt bike rider in the country.

Nearly a decade ago, when Philly rap superstar (and avid dirt bike rider) Meek Mill came down to Baltimore to ride, he was impressed by Braxton’s beyond-his-age skills. He took him under his wing, signed him as the only non-artist to his Dream Chasers label and helped him ink endorsement deals with brands like Monster energy drink. Braxton’s success, affiliations with hip-hop’s upper echelon and otherworldly talent made the dreams of kids watching from all over the world seem attainable.

So when I found myself in that rabbit hole on Instagram in 2019, what I discovered was a dirt bike culture similar to Baltimore’s happening across the globe in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. Kids were decked in Dream Chasers gear, much like Meek Mill and Chino. They did similar tricks in the city’s streets: surfing their bikes with one leg, wheelie-ing the bike into a perfectly straight vertical position (hitting 12 o’clock) and effectively causing pandemonium. In awe, I reached out to a few and communicated with them through DMs and learned that they had been watching riders like Chino on YouTube since their childhoods and wanted to start something similar where they were from. I commissioned an Accra-based photographer to spend a day with them for a photo essay that would be featured in FADER’s December 2019 issue. At that time, I only imagined what it’d look like if Chino was ever able to actually ride with them. But this week, those daydreams became reality.

For the past three years or so, there has been a push from the tourist boards of West African countries like Nigeria and Ghana to reconnect Black Americans and Black Caribbean folk with their ancestral region to obviously drive the economy during the holiday season when these countries’ diasporas return to bring in the new year, but to also strengthen those transatlantic relations. Meek Mill was booked for a show in Accra, and as soon as he and Chino touched down, the bike life crew there welcomed them with open arms and available dirt bikes.

In the past 48 hours, there have been viral videos circulating on social media of Meek and Chino hitting wheelies, kids being overwhelmed by their favorite rap stars touching their soil and an overall sense of joy to connect. The full circle moment has been beautiful to witness, especially considering that it’s been a dream for many Black people on this side of the world to someday touch the same shores they were forcefully taken from centuries ago. And beyond that, it feels important to see the positive influence that dirt bike culture has had on communities across the globe, when you take into account how heavily policed, demonized and politicized dirt biking riding has been in Baltimore City in recent decades.

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