Hating Naira, Loving Marley

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Whose music taps into the Nigerian multipolar zeitgeist? Where is the rebel music of the day? What Nigerian music/musician wants to make you pull out your hair in a fit of annoyance and mumble their lyrics in another breath? If you ask an avid user of Twitter in Nigeria, they’ll probably tell you that Naira Marley is at the center of everything that is abrasive about Nigerian music today; in certain woke circles on the micro-blogging platform, that tendency has got Naira Marley canceled.

On June 28, 2019, when he released his first post-prison bop, Soapy, premiering the single with a dance routine that crudely imitated male masturbation, the voice of his critics were loudest, united in what they interpreted as the musician grabbing at the straws, trying to maintain relevance by any means. Subscribers to this school of thought also believed that the song was fated to tank. It is an easy sentiment to express; in Nigeria’s hyper-religious clime, sexuality or any form of expression – whether mined for the arts – of it remains a taboo subject. In hindsight, the decision to hastily classify the song as a flop was heavily based on sentiments and deafness to the sonic qualities of Soapy. Or maybe not, it’s hard to say.

Away from the groupthink of Twitter, Soapy thrived: the song marched defiantly to the top of music charts in Nigeria, dance-step and online criticism regardless. The official music video for the single – released two months after the track – garnered one million YouTube views six days after its release and is currently at over five million views. It begs the questions: How does he do it? Who is listening to him and why do they despite and in spite of him?

A simple answer would be the music; lost in the hysterics, pontificating, and the outrage over his music is a simple fact that Naira Marley makes music that slaps hard. Schooled in the UK’s grooving afro-bashment scene and equally comfortable within the rhythmic heavy drumming confine of afrobeats, the singer has a talent for music-making that naturally complements his druggy drawl; if the controversy is what introduces you to Naira Marley’s music, the insouciant and infectious quality of his songs are what keep you replaying them.

His run since he dropped Am I a Yahoo Boy is proof of this stellar music-making.  While in the crosshairs of the EFCC, he dropped the introspective Why and the technically flawless bawdy club banger that is Opotoyi to critical acclaim. Even if that acclaim does not always come on the streets of social media, Naira has had his target market: the streets, in a chokehold all year long with his canon of easily relatable, mirror-of-society lyrics. His collaboration with Young John, Mafo, reads like a commentary on the state of life in the nation’s economic capital and a reassurance of support at the same time.

It is true that Naira Marley is a difficult man to like, his biggest singles in 2019 don’t help his case. On Am I a Yahoo Boy, he makes deliberately vague music that leans on support for cybercrime, while Soapy presents a singer at ease dissecting topics such as public sex simulation and its vagaries like a mad scientist, Pxta contains questionable lyrics that will make a feminist cringe. Surprisingly, the hostility towards Naira Marley online has died down in the prevailing months. The Streets have anointed the man a king and swathes of the Nigerian online community seem to be going along with the agenda.

From teetering on the edge of social pariah status months ago, he has been re-imagined as a countercultural avant-garde figure and his stock has never been higher. But it presents a lesson, or two: first, the entire situation shows that it is the attention that mining delicate matters for musical gain presents, that Naira Marley has always been after; lastly, we must learn to avoid stringent binaries because, yes, Marley can be a foul-mouthed provocateur or cybercrime glorifier but, crucially, he is also a talented musician, and that is ultimately his redeeming feature.