Free Naira Marley?
Volume 4 Issue 002: He’s the bad boy of Nigerian music – a controversial hit machine who’s built an empire of loyal fans and topped the African charts. The youth love him and the press is obsessed with him. So why does the government want Naira Marley behind bars?
Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 002. Order your copy here.
They say that Naira Marley does what he wants, and that there’s not much point in telling him otherwise.
“I don’t like authority,” the 23-year-old Nigerian musician confirms with a shrug. “I don’t like people controlling me. If I was meant to be controlled, I would have come with a remote.” If he didn’t feel like coming here today he wouldn’t have bothered. A weary group of documentary-makers are waiting outside in the cold.
Marley showed up to The Face shoot in a south London photography studio late and tired. He’d been working until 6am with NSG, the Hackney Afrobeats sextet who’ve racked up 60 million Spotify streams with their track Options. All things considered, though, the energy has been good. Four of his mates have come along, including Snoop Savage, a rapper in Marley’s No Mannaz crew, and a young lad called Sid whose job seems to be manning the aux cable, playing songs off his phone that are occasionally interrupted by the jarring sound of a YouTube commercial.
Two other guys don’t bother introducing themselves but seem to be having a high old time, drinking Hennessy, dancing around the studio, photobombing the shoot and either complimenting or taking the piss out of Marley’s outfits. For some reason, he never wears a belt. And so none of his crew are wearing belts.
“I’m having fun, I’m comfortable, I want to do this, no one’s forcing me,” Marley insists with a grin as he perches on a stool by the make-up mirror. “I’m happy.”
Born in Lagos, Marley moved to Peckham, south London when he was a kid. These days, however, he’s mostly based back in Nigeria. This UK visit is one of his regular trips to spend time with his young kids, who still live here. This is also a rare moment of (relative) peace: the week after our interview he’ll be surrounded by armed police and mobbed by paparazzi while attending court in Lagos, facing an 11-count charge of conspiracy, possession of counterfeit credit cards and fraud – accused of being what’s known in Nigeria as a Yahoo Boy. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in jail and a hefty fine. Marley has pleaded not guilty.
“I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.” “I am raw to the core. I just says it how it is.”
To understand the life and times and challenges of Naira Marley you need to break down his career into two chapters: the street-level star of Peckham, and Nigeria’s “controversial artiste”, as he’s called by the newspapers in Africa’s most populous state (190 million inhabitants), a country with the third-largest youth population in the world after China and India.
The kid born Afeez Fashola moved to Peckham in 2007. In his early 20s he rebranded himself: first-name Naira (the standard monetary unit of Nigeria), second-name Marley (in tribute to Bob). Still playing it mostly for laughs, he wrote a tune called Marry Juana with his friend Max Twigz and shot a music video on the cheap. The irresistible track mixed the blissful, summery melody of a Caribbean dancehall beat with the weapon-brandishing lyricism popularised by UK road rap, with Marley’s still-prominent Nigerian accent giving a distinctly African flavour. Days after it dropped in 2014, Marley heard it on the radio when he was driving around with his mates.
“I released the song and boom, all the schoolkids are chasing after me, everyone showed love,” he recalls, proudly pointing out that Giggs, the overlord of Peckham road rap, immediately tweeted the YouTube link with the caption: “THIS IS MY FUCKIN RIDDIM”. Tim Westwood messaged him directly to invite him and Max to freestyle for one of his career-making Cribs sessions on the TimWestwoodTV YouTube channel. They didn’t have any bars and Marley had a bad cold, but he didn’t care. “I said: ‘Yo, I’m gonna blow my nose, we’re gonna go to Westwood and do this thing.’”
Months after Marry Juana dropped, London artists such as J Hus and MoStack started making major impact with a similar formula. This new blend of UK rap and Afrobeats was eventually categorised as Afroswing, and since then the genre’s become increasingly popular and polished. In June, MoStack’s debut album peaked at number three in the UK charts, while the most talked-about moment of Drake’s six-date springtime residency at London’s O2 was a surprise appearance from J Hus. Songs from prolific artists such as Yxng Bane, Hardy Caprio and Not3s rapidly rack up millions of YouTube views. In the second half of this decade, Afroswing and UK drill – its darker counterpoint – overtook grime as one of the most popular styles of UK music.
While Marley insists he’s the originator of the Afroswing wave, back then he wasn’t that bothered about making it big. “I was just on the roads, doing too much of what I shouldn’t have been doing,” he admits. Still, he thought he might have a big hit on his hands with a subsequent release, Money on the Road, a collab featuring TG Millian and Blanco from UK drill group Harlem Spartans. But the stars were against it, as was the law. An early version leaked, TG went to jail before they shot the video and Blanco was also inside by the time it was out. “I was just left on my own to promote the song,” Marley remembers, “going to the shows and shutting them down.”
He started spending more time in Lagos, living with his mum and brother and collaborating with local artists. While the Nigerian accent is what caught ears in London, back in Lagos it was his Peckham twang that sounded unique. Moving away from his raw take on UK rap, he began developing a new sound, closer to contemporary Afrobeats and Afro-house, and singing more in Yoruba, a west African language.
His 2018 single Issa Goal, released in the excitable build-up to the World Cup in Russia, started a social media trend of fans doing a distinctive dance – known as shaku shaku – before the music video even dropped. It became the semi-official song for the Nigerian national team, whose lime-green Nike shirt broke sales records with three million pre-orders. Coca-Cola swiftly commissioned a remix for its hashtag-heavy World Cup campaign. All of a sudden, Naira Marley was the hottest name in the Nigerian music industry.
“I used to do this trap and everything, but it’s too violent,” he told an interviewer in late 2018. “I give the kids the wrong idea and they all go to jail or whatever. So right now, Afrobeats is the wave.”
But that’s not to say he’s compromised. Before his teenage years in pre-gentrified Peckham, Marley spent his childhood in Agege, a largely working-class part of Lagos State. To this day, keeping it real is an immense source of pride. “My music is more, like, jumpy, more danceable, more street,” he says, comparing himself to Nigeria’s more wholesome Afropop stars. “I am raw. To the core. I just says it how it is. I’m not sugarcoating it.”
A culture of scamming, practised by a few persistent individuals, first developed in Nigeria during a period of economic downturn amid the usual government corruption in the 1980s. More recently, the digital revolution has enabled tech-savvy criminals to accelerate and internationalise methods of robbing comparatively wealthy internet users: phishing card details, creating fake profiles on dating websites and hacking email accounts to arrange bogus payments from businesses.
In December 2018 Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) decided to crack down, launching Operation Cyber Storm and declaring “a total war” on digi-criminals “who have done nothing but give Nigeria a bad name at home and abroad”. The slang term for their targets is “yahoo boy”, named in reference to the once-popular search engine. In April 2019 the singer Simi – who’d appeared on the Issa Goal remix – took to social media to express her disgust at cyberfraud and demand that yahoo boys stop listening to her music.
Seemingly in response, Naira Marley stood up for them. “If u know about slavery u go know say yahoo no b crime,” he posted on Instagram, going on to argue that yahoo boys contribute to the economy while Nigerian leaders hoard their wealth – an argument with some traction in an oil-reliant nation where the class divide is pronounced, the unemployment rate stood at 23.1 per cent towards the end of 2018 and millions of people live in extreme poverty.
On the streets, there is a palpable sense that the EFCC – set up in 2003 – is mainly interested in pursuing the already poor and soft-pedalling investigations into anyone with any connections.
“I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.” “I tried to tackle the government once and they came to arrest me.”
In May 2019 Marley released the track Am I a Yahoo Boy, which features the popular Nigerian rapper Zlatan. In the song, Marley doesn’t claim to be a yahoo boy. But the lyrics are provocative: “Government is a thief, bloggers are armed robber/all my friends are yahoo/music is my source of pride.” The video depicts Marley being slammed onto a car by police and handcuffed.
The day after the song dropped – coincidentally, Marley’s birthday – the EFCC arrested him and Zlatan along with three other men, Tiamiu Abdulrahman Kayode, Adewunmi Adeyanju Moses and Abubakar Musa. The latter four were released five days later. Marley was held in custody for 35 days, with the EFCC boasting about the arrest on social media. Its tweets pointed out that Marley and Zlatan are “fast-rising musicians”, claimed they had “volunteered useful information” and that an unspecified “intelligence report” linked them to a cybercrime offence.
But Marley’s management denied that the EFCC had any hard evidence against him, arguing that he’d been locked up for speaking out and that his human and civil rights were being violated.
His fans, known as Marlians, protested outside the EFCC headquarters in Lagos. Marley tells me that their rage was understandable, “because they know the system. They know what [the EFCC was] trying to do and they followed what happened. They knew I shouldn’t be getting arrested for what I’m saying. Freedom of speech!” he exclaims. “I should be allowed to be saying what I’m saying. But [the EFCC] said I was supporting fraud, because I said I have no problem with these people.”
For Ife Koleowo, a 28-year-old entertainment lawyer from Lagos, this is a “very nuanced conversation”. He points out that some people in Nigeria “hate yahoo boys because of the reputation of our country – it’s definitely made business harder in terms of engagement overseas. Problem is, however, as far as Marley’s concerned, there’s no clear proof he’s a yahoo boy. He didn’t say he was one.
“There is sympathy for yahoo boys – I don’t fall into that camp – but there’s a lot of people who feel it’s like reparations in theory,” Koleowo continues, alluding to the view that Europe and the west owe a debt to Africa for historical imperial wrongdoings.
“On the other side, there’s the constant war Nigerians are having with the police and the EFCC. They’re [seen to be] targeting young dreads – or young, not necessarily conventional-looking Nigerians – and turning them into yahoo boys and throwing them into detention without cause.”
Despite his legal woes, Marley has refused to be silenced. Subsequent tracks have referenced his situation, from the illustrated cover art of Why? (released shortly after his arrest) depicting him raising his cuffed hands with an expression of defiance, to the government-slamming lyrics of Bad Influence (“We want school, but they give us prison”).
He joined Twitter in July and instantly mastered the art of entertaining the Marlians with braggadocio, hustler philosophy and dirty jokes. But it’s the politically-potent tweets which get the most likes: “In Nigeria they will arrest u first then they will try find out ur crime after”; “Our leaders don’t even live in the country.”
Then there’s Soapy, his first major single since the controversy, with its jailhouse-set video. Marley coined “soapy” as a slang for self-pleasuring – a common pastime in prison, of course – which in turn has started another dance craze in Nigeria, with Marlians cheerfully waving their hands as if masturbating. It’s been one of the biggest songs of the year in Nigeria, hitting number one in the singles chart and becoming a crowd-pleasing staple at, of all things, wedding discos.
Marley cracks a mischievous smile when I bring up the Soapy phenomenon. Considering that his Instagram presence is an endless stream of videos of women twerking to his songs, he’s by no means a prude. But he wants me to understand that there’s a serious side to Soapy.
“I’m sending a lot of messages in that song,” he insists, loosely assembling a spliff by the studio’s make-up mirror. “[People] think it’s just talking about guys wanking … I was talking about conditions in prison and inside life. Fela called it ‘inside world’.”
Fela Kuti, the late, great Afrobeat pioneer, is spoken of in the highest regard by Nigeria’s young musicians. Kuti was arrested over 200 times by the regime of former army major Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in 1983 after a military coup. But the musician was only jailed once (for a currency smuggling charge, which Amnesty International declared a politically-motivated sham). In 2015, Buhari returned to power as Nigeria’s president.
It’s this rebellious spirit that Marley thinks he’s channelling. “They want to treat me like Fela/They want to treat me like Mandela”, he sang on Am I a Yahoo Boy.
“He was fighting the governments all his life,” Marley says of Kuti, beaming with admiration. “So he’s an influence, because sometimes now I’m in Nigeria I still see all the bad things happening. But I tried to tackle the government about it once and they came to arrest me.” He lets out a sigh. “Talking about Fela too much might even get me in trouble. It’s, like, crazy.”
A few days after The Face interview and photoshoot, Wizkid, another of Nigeria’s shooting-star talents, brought his sold-out Starboy fest to the O2 in London. But it was one of his guests who arguably stole the show. A one-time underrated Peckham pioneer of UK Afroswing tested out his new “Marlian dance” in front of a sell-out crowd of 20,000. The footage went viral, of course, and thousands more were recruited for the Marlian empire.
The next week the musician was back in Nigeria, standing trial at the Federal High Court in Lagos. An EFCC investigator told the court they had found “damning evidence of credit card fraud” on the defendant’s laptop. The case was adjourned until 11 – 12 December. After his day in court the musician hit up a strip club and shared the debauched footage circulating on social media. The African media were either amused or appalled.
“I started out not even caring about my music or trying to blow like that. But God gave me another chance, you know?” he says during our interview, revealing how his Islamic faith helps him handle the immense pressure. “When there was another chance, God chose the path for me. People kept asking me for more songs, and I just can’t go back now. I don’t want people to think: ‘He started a wave and then did nothing with his life.’ So I took it a bit serious, because people took it too seriously. Now I have to take it seriously!” He sounds a little nervous, but then he just shrugs and cracks a smile. “This is my life now.”
Naira Marley releases the LOL EP on 18th December. He is scheduled to perform a Marlian Fest show in Lagos at the Ecko Convention Centre on 30th December, and at London’s Brixton Academy on 2nd February.
Grooming Maya Man using Tom Ford Beauty, Set design Lydia Chan, Photography assistance Florence Omotoyo and Erwann Petersen, Production Rosanna Gouldman