Naira Marley, Afro Pop’s polarizing public enemy number one

Naira Marley embraces his controversial persona on new single, ‘Soapy’ [Credit: Naira Marley]

‘Issa Goal’ was the song that introduced him to the mainstream audience, ‘Japa’ was the one that convinced us that he was anything but a one-hit flash in the pan, but his arrest by the Economic Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC] is proving to be Naira Marley’s biggest moment yet.

The Nigerian pop scene has always had its fair share of ‘controversial figures.’ From the likes of Eedris Abdulkareem, Burna Boy, Sauce Kid now Sinzu and Dammy Krane, the industry has witnessed musicians who have polarized public opinions and built a career thriving off the outrage that their music and actions generate.

At his best, Naira Marley, real name Afeez Fashola is, without doubt, a talented artist, one whose unique druggy vocal texture and use of background melodies have made his sound easily acceptable especially when placed on a Rexxie beat, the man credited with supplying Zlatan with his hit formula.

Just as his profile began to soar, Marley soon courted trouble with his vocal defense of internet fraud popularly known as ‘Yahoo Yahoo.’ From comparing the hideous act to the Slave-trade era to calling out fellow artists who as much as failed to cast a glance in his direction, his reputation began to attract unnecessary attention.

All this ultimately cumulated to the release of the infamous record, ‘Am I A Yahoo Boy’ with Zlatan and subsequently his much-publicized arrest by the EFCC for charges relating to credit card scams and his arraignment on Monday, May 20, 2019.

Naira Marley surrounded by security personnel [WithinNigeria]

The ‘Public trial’ is one that has now further aided his inglorious but celebratory street cred among his fans, popularly known as the ‘Marlians,’ who are as quick to slap the tag ‘Legend or Icon’ to his name as they are to attack anyone who takes a stand different from theirs.

Mixing street elements and slangs, profane spewing invective, and a confrontational public persona to earn a larger audience is one tactic that almost always works and that is why the likes of Olamide, Small Doctor enjoy a strong cult following, then add a sense of victimization to all of this and you find a Naira Marley, being viewed through the trappings of everything we believe a society like ours has shaped us to become.

In the weeks following his ordeal and eventual release on bail, Marley and his team fully capitalized on the unintended benefits that came courtesy of the controversy with the release of as much as three new singles.

From songs like ‘Why’ to ‘Opotoyi,’ a song which further drives home the message that ‘sex and vulgarity sell’, but it is the latest titled ‘Soapy,’ that is yet again generating heated discuss online.

What is he up to this time? ‘Soapy’ is a song that references his time in EFCC custody, sharing his experience and shedding not too bright lights on life on the ‘inside.’

‘A ti lo, a ti de, e ni ori yo, o di le…’ [We have gone and returned, those who survive are headed home]

But while the song itself is a similar offering in bounce and free-spirited rhythm to what he has delivered in recent past, it comes with a particular dance that has elicited further scrutiny of the song’s cryptic intention.

Popular songs that arrive with a dance move like ‘Zanku’ or ‘Shaku Shaku’ have become staples for mainstream acceptance at any lit gathering and can be heard blasting through the Island clubs on a Friday night and in the now viral video, Marley is seen dancing in an explicit manner, glorifying the depiction of masturbation- an act that is presumed common in an all-male prison.

Masturbation in itself is not a crime, and it is not my place to debate its appropriateness [Or not] but there is a reason why it holds severe sanctions in many countries if done publicly. What ‘Soapy’ has succeeded in doing is providing a conducive context for an open showcase as seen in further fan videos shared online of adult men doing this repulsive dance move in public places and even harassing innocent passers-by.

Naira’s blunt approach to life and his beliefs mirrors everything it takes to survive on the streets and while he has overtime used his fair share of ‘shock and offend’ attributes, the continuous harsh depiction and the open support of vices like fraud, drugs, sexual fantasies and now masturbation are becoming problematic.

There is the dismissive argument pushed by his supporters who are quick to remind you that ‘’music mirrors the society’’, a plausible reaction, with many also pointing out perceived selective hypocrisy mentioning songs like Patapaa’s ‘One Corner’ in drawing a timeline to how far back our values have gone to the dogs.

Social media discourse has seen people share different tolerance levels on the song/dance. I am quite careful not to place a gag of morality or censorship on the creativity of an artist because I understand that limiting what’s acceptable in music and art undoubtedly threatens the artist’s power to create, moreso, if the society he represents is one that has failed its people, constantly suppressing and supporting the breakdown of order, allowing these acts to thrive.

But there is just enough space that allows for inappropriate content and we would be sorely lacking in imagination if, in 2019, we conclude that Naira Marley champions any course other than his own. Also, there eventually comes a point when we must now begin to ask ourselves, if the best decision is to then allow the society to continue in its state of ‘rot’ and artists reinforce the stereotype that we are a people filled with criminals on one side and sexually unrestrained hormones on the other side or begin to determine and shape the type of narratives that we want for ourselves and the future.

Unlike the 80s when rap group, Public Enemy was seen as an agent for effecting social change and unity with their message and consciousness against police brutality and other social injustice, Naira Marley is fast becoming a byword for bothersome, silliness and a nihilistic menace, emblematic of everything wrong with any sensible society.

As for the listeners who may have been nauseated by the dance the way I have been, the Nigerian music industry mid-year report shows that it’s presently enjoying a general climate of positive music, if only you can look beyond these noisemakers; the likes of Rema, Fireboy, Oxlade and the ‘Alte’ band offering music with diversity and vibes. If Marley’s creativity is only driven by his phallic urges, then it is left to the audience to filter the music they want to hear, let’s not be distracted.

Writer(Sports and Entertainment), Manchester United. Music lover. I believe you can speak things into existence...

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