“Only God Can Cancel Me”: Unpacking The Artistry Of Naira Marley

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2019 has seen some of Nigeria’s biggest music revolutions happen. Riding on the success of fore-bearers, Nigerian artistes have taken their art from zero to a hundred, with the likes of Burna Boy dropping an album that has been widely revered as terrific, while also winning Best International Act at the BET Awards; also, there’s Wizkid’s notable appearance on Beyoncé’s ‘The Gift’ album alongside other notable acts like Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, Tekno, Mr Eazi, et cetera. Coupled with other successes home and abroad, it is no doubt that the year has been terrific for Nigerian music. With all these noted, and in these changing times, it is very crucial to identify the emergence of notable artists, one of such being Naira Marley. His rise, acceptance and continuous dominance of the Nigerian musical landscape has proven that he is not just an artiste, but actually an icon of what some have regarded as a new era of music.

Azeez Fashola – better known as Naira Marley – took zero prisoners in 2019 and that is not even up for debate. After breaking into the Nigerian music scene with the Olamide and Lil Kesh assisted “Issa Goal”, Naira has blatantly refused to stop dropping hits. One thing is distinct about Naira’s sound: the ability of each track to serve as a street anthem and be a club banger at the same time. He creates this mix simply by combining witty, easy to learn lyrics with boppy beats – mostly chopped up by Rexxie. His lyrics have shown depth, his use of the local language has shown his ability to wrap up important ideas and nuggets in piecemeal, his delivery has always portrayed contextual meanings that ordinary Nigerians can always relate to. His reception has been controversial, with many who support his art willing to consume whatever he produces, while some stand antagonistic of his art regardless of the content. This article will explore and examine his rise, relevance and influence on pop culture while demystifying his lyrical depth and persona.

Naira Marley acquired prominence on the Nigerian scene after dropping his singles, “Japa” and the Olamide and Lil Kesh assisted “IssaGoal” in 2018. Needless to say, Issa Goal became Nigeria’s anthem for the 2018 World Cup because of its football-inclined theme and upbeat and lyrics that were full of every slang used on the streets of Lagos while playing football during the compulsory “environmental sanitation” Saturdays. The song went on to get a remix which featured Slimcase, Olamide, Lil Kesh, Falz, Slimcase, Olamide, and Simi who he’d later have an online row with.

In “Japa”, he portrays life on the run, his defiance to capitalist hegemony (“owo toll gate yen, mi o ni le san”), while showing his knowledge of the law at the same time in his lines “I’m on bail oh, sorry mi o ni le lo”. His no-surrender chant, “if you want to fire me, fire me make I jabo! jabo!” mirrors the entirety of the great Fela Kuti’s work; defiance and the willingness to stand by the principle – even if it means death.

“Ko s’ogun aiku, iku lo gara ju,
Were to s’ogun aiku fun, to ba ku gan, bawo lo se fe gba refund?”

Here, Naira Marley emphasizes the transient and ephemeral nature of human existence, the finality of death and the futility of any attempt at immortality. Thus, maintaining a philosophical standpoint on death which is not so different from that expressed by existentialists such as Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. However, certain diabolical attempts are made to escape this predestined fate. Within the context of Naira Marley’s audience – a society where supernatural beliefs are a norm – it is very important that dominant voices in music use their platform to deconstruct these toxic beliefs.

Naira Marley’s “Opotoyi“ was received with mixed reactions. While some claim that the song – especially the chorus – is an ode to the beauty of the thiquè African body, others think it is a song that can only come from the lowest ebbs of societal morals. The lyrics are very [un]popular – depending on which side of the table you’re on – and easy to learn because of the aforementioned reasons. However, the conversations have been critical of Naira Marley in a way that has raised many questions regarding certain topics around women. While some see Naira Marley as sexist and misogynist, others argue that he is only a product of a society that commodifies women. While these two spectra of arguments conflict, some are of the idea that Naira Marley is rather a progressive artist who adds decibels to the voices of women who choose to be expressive with their bodies. Are these choices defined by financial incentives or are they informed choices driven by the ambitions of these women? These are the questions that are raised by these conversations.

What is most noteworthy is the way the self-righteous moralizers go about the criticism of this track; cherry-picking parts where he shared unpopular opinion (kilofemu? o ni ki n fun oun ni coke, Coca! / mo pe dealer mi, oun sniff, emi gbe’gbo s’enu, ganja!) while ignoring lines like “sexy girl, je kin gbori si e laya” where he innocently asks to be comforted by the warmth of the bosom of the lady he adores, and “da ki n to da”, where, after moving from first base to home run, he ensures his woman gets a taste of nirvana before he gets a peek at the promised land.

“Won fe se mi bi Fela, won fe se mi bi Mandela
Won fe se mi bi President Kennedy, won fe se mi bi MKO Abiola”

Soon after these hits, Naira Marley was caught in a web of online controversies that involved him making statements justifying online fraud, asking Nigerians to be “grateful to yahoo boys” cos “they’re the reason money flows in the economy.” Around this period, Naira Marley released “Am I A Yahoo Boy”. The title of the song is depictive of a rhetorical question posed at his doubters and accusers. On this track, he featured Zlatan Ibile. To drive home his conviction, Naira Marley wears the critic wig. Amidst a raving beat that could get anyone to jump into the highlife mood, Naira Marley questions the stereotypes ingrained in Nigerians who are quick to guess that young people who look comfortable can only afford that lifestyle by being involved in cybercrime.

To make this track even more controversial, he references his legal battles as one of justice and a liberation movement from oppressive structures that have tied young people down for far too long. He goes on to name-drop Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nelson Mandela, J. F. Kennedy, and M.K.O. Abiola while drawing parallels between their struggles and his current legal travails.

He goes on to draw the attention of his listeners to actual criminal structures that have for generations enjoyed god-like and state-sponsored immunity, devoid of criticism from the people. It is noteworthy that the criminals he pointed out (bloggers, pastors, imams and the government) have been getting a lot of heat lately as fresh scandals involving them keep getting exposed. These four institutions have proven to be as controversial as it gets. Religious structures have for a long time been criticised in Nigeria for being lackadaisical about the welfare of their adherents, while the top leadership of these structures enjoy in affluence at the expense of the poor congregate. And the same can be said about the government in Nigeria as well. While popular belief attests to the notoriety of the government with regards to embezzlement of funds and chronic mismanagement of funds, Naira Marley amplifies this thought by duly referencing it in his art. Nigerian artistes have always been criticised for not always using their platforms to speak up about crucial social issues, but Lord Marley to the rescue as he ensures that people never forget the real struggles even while showing their legwork.

“Kékeré ekùn ò mà ń ṣ’egbé ajá

Wón ń bé ni, má fòó, àwon náà ò fé wàhálà”

In this part of his dissertation titled “Soapy”, Naira Marley LOL (Lord of Lamba) stresses the reach of his belief in speciesism while interpolating the principle of mutually assured destruction, hence showing his proficiency in Biology, Politics, and Conflict Deescalation.

On the 10th of May 2019, he was arrested by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nigeria’s anti-corruption body, and was charged on 11 counts bordering on Conspiracy, Possession of Counterfeit Credit Cards, and Online Fraud.

He was held in EFCC custody for a while before his bail application was successful and that’s where the real fire was lit. “Soapy” became an instant hit and we all have Rexxieponthebeat to thank for this. In a country like Nigeria that’s still held by the shackles of organized religion, you can clearly guess what the initial response was to a song whose title is a street slang for masturbation (self-love, if you will). The self-dubbed morality knights on Twitter swore that Naira Marley had to go for good. In less that 24 hours, “Soapy” reached number one on the Top 100 Nigeria on Apple Music and sat there for several weeks. Before we even talk about the iconic artwork that’s a huge shoutout to all the lotion companies putting in the work to aid satisfaction, we should talk about how “Soapy” had a ridiculous amount of lambas in it – prime street wisdom with a contagious beat – all inspired by the time he spent in the prison cell. “Inside life” which is a phrase he used as a prefix to every sentence to show the polar contrast in the living conditions of different people from different financial backgrounds in prison and as an extension, life, is now certified social media lingo; peddled and used arbitrarily especially by the same Twitter users who swore to never be associated with Naira Marley or his art. Quite rich.

For everyone who missed the point of “Soapy”, Mr Naira was simply drawing the attention of people to the deplorable living conditions of the Nigerian Prisons, the rotten system who sends only disadvantaged people to these prisons, and the importance of onanism in a system that doesn’t give you the basic right that is a conjugal visit. (That’s what he told me on WhatsApp)

“Ṣ’o d’owo mọ? O wa sọ p’o o mọ Naira”

To be very honest, we might never get a cockier one-liner than this. Loosely translated, he said, “Do you recognize money? And you say you don’t know me?” Naira Marley alludes that he is as ubiquitous and recognised as money is and no one can really claim to not have come across any mention of him in any form at all. The depth of meaning and simplicity of terms used mixed with the ebullience in delivery all come together to make this line a classic. When you factor in the beat break immediately before he spits this braggadocio, you have to ask yourself when Jay Z touched Naira Marley.

It will be intellectual dishonesty to say Naira Marley isn’t as influential as his social media handles suggest. In less than two years, he broke into the major scene and now has a cult-like following of young people across social strata who refer to themselves as “Marlians”. Apart from his lyrics being used as captions, they also serve as social justice campaign chants too. In his global hit song titled Soapy, Naira Marley declares that no one – not even the society, has the moral legitimacy to question anyone’s wealth or financial standpoint because, “ole ni everybody” – a stance he reaffirmed on the morning of the Glory Osei scandal on Twitter. The capitalist establishments that have enriched the top 1% of the country have now, for the first time, have to answer for the source of their wealth. At this point, no one is left out of the illegalities around wealth gain in our society. We find copious examples in our society today where young people have abandoned the old narrative of “decency and good behaviour” and now openly question the wealth of some of the rich and celebrated Nigerians.

This article does not seek to serve as a tribunal to justify or vilify Naira Marley’s actions, but it does seek to critic his artistry and persona from a perspective that is rather obscure and not very much talked about. In order to fully understand Naira Marley’s artistry, one has to align with the spirit of time and identify the crucial paradigm shift in culture that is happening right now. For far too long, concepts such as repute, respect, uprightness and all other subjective values have always been conditioned and defined by a cultural and societal system that has been in the hands of a dictatorial gerontocracy. We see these virtues as they have been defined and it is almost impossible to question those ideas without been tagged a rebel. This system itself has proven to be hypocritical and failed in the face of modern society build-up. We can argue that this gerontocracy has failed and has stolen the franchise and future of generations to come. As a result of this failure, the younger generation has developed a reaction – may be justified or not – and that reaction has become controversial today. We see Naira Marley’s artistry as a microcosm of a bigger reaction to what is currently obtainable and also to the problematic history of our society.

Ultimately, Naira is caught up in the web of a lot issues. For some, he is a role model who amplifies their thoughts; for others, he is just another musician whose duty is to drop club bangers just for fun; yet for some, he is an icon, a thought provoking artiste, and one whose lyrics and messages transcend the beats and sounds he creates, and provides a meaning for their life and a reflection of their immediate society.

Some people say we were on crack when we wrote this.

Taofeeq Sarayi (@Taofeeq_NG), David Inung Ejim, Ehis Anderson Ohiwerei (@theEhigbai), and Egemasi Ozioma Temple (@ThatTemple)

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