Depending on who you speak to, Naira Marley is both the scourge of the following era of Nigerians or their saviour. But whoever’s speaking, the pop star – arguably probably the most controversial in Africa – is spoken about in near-mythological tones, which makes his amiability very arresting after we meet in London a few weeks earlier than lockdown.
He arrives flanked by an entourage, photoshoot-ready in a reflective puffer, and oscillates between class clown and deep thought. To some, the 25-year-old’s meteoric rise over the previous two years has been sudden: promoting out Brixton Academy in three minutes; accruing three million Instagram followers, tens of thousands and thousands of streams, and a cult-like fandom. But the indicators of stardom have at all times been there.
Born Afeez Fashola in Agege, Lagos, Marley moved to Peckham, London, aged 11. As a teen he was a eager freestyle rapper, however was initially extra in the administration facet of music. During a studio session he facilitated for associates in 2014, he recorded the moment hit Marry Juana on a whim. The monitor helped usher in the fusion of UK rap, dancehall and Afrobeats that now ceaselessly hits the UK charts, by such artists as J Hus, Darkoo, Young T & Bugsey. The mix of influences is referenced in his title: Naira is the forex of Nigeria, and Marley reggae royalty.
“I knew it was a new sound and I wasn’t sure if people were gonna take to it,” he says. “I didn’t know it would be a big impact, with everyone following afterwards.” African intonation is now commonplace in the UK music scene, however again then, a Caribbean lilt was the usual amongst MCs – no matter their background. “I was already proud of being African and had a problem with the fact we couldn’t be ourselves,” he says. “So I just went with my accent and it sounded wavy.”
Marley made waves with UK rap bangers Back2Work and Money On the Road. It was tough to instantly affiliate him with one style: he had a scampish likability mixed with the sting of a road rapper. When he began ceaselessly visiting Lagos, his music took on the sunnier sound of Afrobeats and his recognition skyrocketed.
When Marley shared a snippet of his 2018 single Issa Goal on Instagram, it immediately launched the social media development that went on to dominate that summer season, the shaku shaku dance, and have become the semi-official music for the Nigerian soccer staff. He launched the label Marlian Music, and is presently looking out for its first feminine artist. “I actually want a fat girl,” he says with a grin. “Music is spiritual – it’s not about the look only. There’s actually fat people in the world, you know? It doesn’t have to be skinny people singing only.”
But there was a main bump in this ascent: his arrest by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). It started when one other Afrobeats artist, Simi, chastised the actions of the nation’s “Yahoo boys” – web conmen nicknamed after the search engine. In response, Marley wrote an Instagram post saying: “If u know about slavery … yahoo no b crime” and later requested Nigerians to “pray for internet fraudsters” moderately than criticise them, arguing that they stored cash circulating in the nation. Nigeria is eager to shed its fame for web fraud, and Marley was accused of exacerbating it.
A backlash adopted, additional whipped up by Marley’s antagonistically titled single Am I a Yahoo Boy that includes Nigerian rapper Zlatan. The lyrics had been provocative (the Nigerian authorities is solid as “thieves”) as was the video, which featured a mock-up of Marley being arrested. The day after its launch, he and Zlatan had been arrested in actual life together with three others.
Marley was held in custody for 35 days and the case is ongoing, that means he can’t touch upon it straight. He faces 11 expenses of credit-card fraud, for allegedly conspiring to use bank card numbers that didn’t belong to him, and having counterfeit playing cards in addition to playing cards that weren’t his personal. If convicted, he may very well be jailed for up to seven years. He has pleaded not responsible. In a assertion, his administration argued he was being held “based on a cheeky song”.
“Naira did not publicly [defend] those who commit fraud,” it reads. “He expressed his view on the situation, which was simply his opinion.” He seems undeterred: the quilt artwork of his single Why?, launched shortly after his arrest, reveals him elevating his arms in handcuffs. In Bad Influence, he continues to take potshots at Nigeria’s leaders, declaring himself a scapegoat for their very own failings. “We want school, but they give us prison,” is among the lyrics. He tells me: “I’ve always been political because I was born in Nigeria, where everything is not the way it’s meant to be. I’ve always been against the corruption.”
Comparisons between the music of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti and the up to date pop type Afrobeats are widespread. But Marley, who sings “they want to treat me like they treated Fela”, can also be drawing comparisons with the federal government’s repression of Kuti, who was arrested extra than 200 instances after talking out in opposition to Nigeria’s violent, corrupt mid-century regime. “All my music is not straight at the government, straight political, but there’s a lot of similarities,” he says. “The weed, the I-don’t-care attitude, the freedom – speaking your mind and the government coming to arrest you.”
I ask him what he discovered throughout his time in jail in Lagos. “That I’m powerful,” he says with none pause. “Not to be big-headed, but I influence a lot of people.” His devoted fanbase, often called Marlians, protested exterior the EFCC headquarters for the whole lot of his keep and rallied round him with the #FreeNairaMarley hashtag.
His impression is simple: from serving to to pioneer the Afrobashment type, to heading viral dance crazes, such because the shaku shaku and the tesumole dance. Soapy, his first major single since his arrest, is accompanied by a dance simulating masturbation, and has taken over the streets of Lagos, unsurprisingly upsetting ire. But the Marlians are the most important testomony to his affect, one thing that goes past mere fandom.
“I’m a Marlian myself,” he says. “It’s more of a way of life. It’s a country.”
“A religion,” his supervisor presents from throughout the room, laughing. “A cult!”
The loosely outlined Marlian ideology virtually exists exterior of Marley himself. It’s mainly about pushing again in opposition to a strangling establishment and its adherents have their very own guidelines – Marlians don’t put on belts or have a good time Valentine’s Day, nor do they do a complete host of different arbitrary issues, having determined that that is the way in which to finest embody the spirit of their musical deity.
Marley is laid again about many of the guidelines created in his title, however makes it clear he doesn’t agree with all the things. He mentions a latest story that hit the Nigerian press, concerning a teen Marlian who was suspended for not carrying underwear to college, as per alleged Marlian tips.
“I didn’t tell them not to wear pant,” he shrugs. “There’s even pastors praying in church saying, ‘I cast the spirit of Marlian out of your children. Your children will graduate!’”
With his dreads, penchant for weed and disrespect for authority, Marley is the embodiment of all the things that inherently conservative Nigerian society dislikes, notably in its youth. He is the bodily manifestation of oldsters’ fears over their youngsters becoming a member of “bad gang” – boasting of “no mannaz”, and rubbishing Nigerian increased training.
His ubiquity inside the Nigerian press, equal elements misguided and hysterical, means something he says makes headlines. Though a nice deal is intentionally provocative, there’s at all times technique in his insanity, he assures. Even Soapy has extra to it that its instant lewd premise: it’s a mediation on his jail expertise. “I just added the dance so it wasn’t as serious,” he says.
One of his most controversial statements on Twitter – “Marlians Don’t Graduate, We Drop Out” – led to inevitable uproar in a nation the place formal training is extremely valued. He tells me his message was misconstrued: “There are corporate Marlians, there are dropout Marlians – all kind of Marlians.” Another statement that rankled was: “Having a big booty is better than having a masters degree.” Though on the floor ridiculous, the sentiment could also be tough to dispute. Last 12 months, 55% of younger folks in Nigeria aged 15 to 35 had been unemployed, and graduates had been among the many worst affected. Meanwhile, the nation’s Instagram fashions and influencers are big enterprise.
“It’s not a joke!” he says emphatically. “I don’t want it to be better, but it is better, in Nigeria especially: big-bummed girls that didn’t even graduate can get a job easily. It’s better to have a big bum than qualifications – you have more of a chance.”
This is what attracts younger Nigerians to Marley most of all: his willingness to confront the institution’s hypocrisy.
“They are still backwards,” he says. “They’re not free, they don’t believe in equality, they don’t believe, if you’re 18, you can make decisions yourself. They don’t believe in freedom of speech. I’m making people speak their mind, making people make their own decisions.” Marley is aware of one thing that his naysayers don’t but appear to have grasped: the extra they clutch their pearls, the extra highly effective he turns into.