Profile: Naira Marley may have played himself. But can he still win?

The 2018 World Cup wasn’t a memorable outing for the Super Eagles of Nigeria. Dumped out at the group stage despite a wondrous performance by Ahmed Musa in the second match, the Super Eagles suffered yet another aborted World Cup campaign. The salvaging element of the entire fiasco was the world’s fascination with the stunning Nike designed team jerseys.

Back at home, the World Cup was a significant boost for the up and coming music artiste known as Naira Marley. In the twilight of 2017, after a string of singles that never quite caught fire, Naira Marley put out the cheery, jubilant stomper, Issa goal with assists from Olamide and his former protégé Lil Kesh. After flirting albeit unsuccessfully with sounds from the UK underground, Issa goal represented a pivot to the streets of Lagos where Naira Marley was born and raised.

The highlight of the relentlessly catchy Issa goal is the jubilant chant made famous by commentators all over the world the moment a player successfully finds the net during a football game. Naira Marley took this chant, made it the centerpiece of his song, repeating it in every line but surrounding it with anything else that would stick. These complementary nuggets consisted occasionally of football lingo, but powered by the streets. Some of the terms can be found in the mainstream (Escobar, bank alert), but more still remain familiar to only people who ever observed a match in public or grew up in the streets. This accounts for millions of people obviously.

Produced by Studio Magic who supplied a bouncy up tempo beat that would support the latest dance mainstays (think Shaku shaku and South Africa’s Gwara gwara), Issa goal was not an instant hit despite its high replay value. A slow burner, the tune spent months bubbling under, picking up steam as the new year got underway. By this time, the country’s focus was moving increasingly to the beautiful game.

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Talk about showing up at the right time.

By the time the World Cup was underway, it became obvious that Naira Marley, the UK returnee rapper without a hit single to his name prior had beaten out everyone else to claiming the unofficial accompanying anthem. If there was a case for song of the summer, especially in a World Cup year, Naira Marley’s Issa goal made it quite convincingly. A Coca Cola sanctioned remix, expanded to accommodate superstars like Falz, Simi plus flavor of the month Slimcase further increased the reach and brought on more significance.

It didn’t matter what the suits at the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) were or weren’t doing, the country had adopted Issa goal as the (un)official World Cup anthem. When Ahmed Musa hammered two past the insurgent Iceland defense, Issa goal was the soundtrack of the occasion. When Victor Moses stepped up to roll Nigeria level against Argentina, hence keeping the team -albeit temporarily- within touching distance of progressing to the next round, Issa goal was the chant from Lagos to London.

If it wasn’t quite the case that a star had been born, at least Naira Marley had garnered for himself the biggest audience of his career so far. Going forwards, people knew his name, promoters were booking him at events and he was beginning to figure in certain conversations. It seemed that things could only go up from this point. And for a while it was so. Until it wasn’t.

‘’Yahoo no be crime’’

To consolidate on his newfound fame, Naira Marley went and did what is expected of an artiste on the rise. He put out more music and did more collaborations. He also did what wasn’t expected and managed to center himself in an ongoing conversation that has splintered Nigerian society and birthed countless hot takes, online arguments and loud pontificating.

For years now, Nigeria has been synonymous with advance free fraud, a crime that has amassed more loyalists even as the repercussions of such vices spread to affect regular upstanding citizens. Because of this greedy habit of swindling naive targets- preferably westerners- of their monies, mainstream media especially in North America and Europe have outlined an agenda that has internet fraud as the dominant Nigerian narrative. This has created a trust deficit that makes it increasingly difficult for Nigerians to do legitimate business abroad.

However, proceeds of advanced free fraud have historically powered the Nigerian music industry and created more stars than anyone has cared to document. It is perhaps the worst kept secret in the music business that a couple of major- and minor- record labels are floated and managed with proceeds derived from advance free fraud as the investors seek out legitimate means of putting their newly acquired wealth to use.

A disturbing complication is that rogue operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have latched on this menace as an excuse for embarking on a murderous spree that has effectively rendered young men as open marks.  It is into this dangerous and complicated environment that Naira Marley thrust himself without the buffer of having done any deep introspection.

Responding to a Simi Instagram live rant on the dangers of cyber crime in April this year, Naira Marley vomited his half-baked thoughts online, arguing that cyber crime is some form of twisted reparations for the evil that was the slave trade. In other words, Nigerians partaking in cyber crime are merely taking back what was taken from them centuries ago.

This type of thinking is far from ground breaking but it is one that appears to be popular among even people who should know better. Pop king 2baba had earlier expressed similar sentiments while responding to a fan and label boss, M.I in an interview, stated clearly that labels are more likely to get support from yahoo boys than from the banks. Naira Marley’s comments arrived at a time when the debate surrounding cyber crime was escalating and he was roundly taken to the cleaners by a section of the internet.

Naira Marley sought to profit from all this attention and in a masterstroke of great timing- a Naira Marley constant- and fast thinking, put out what would become his biggest hit since Issa goal, the single Am I a Yahoo boy featuring Zlatan, another fast-rising entertainer.

Using wordplay that stretches between clever and eye rolling (he compares his situation with those of Fela and Mandela) and arming himself with a knowing wink that made it clear he wasn’t to be taken seriously, Naira Marley cast himself as the average young Nigerian male. One who is constantly harassed on the streets for his counter cultural choices, especially in the hair, makeup and money spending departments.

The video directed by ThankGod Omori is a colorful affair. Naira Marley is picked up by gun brandishing SARS operatives at a carwash where he is having a bacchanal. Despite protestations of innocence, he is only released after the operatives go through his Mac and find nothing incriminating. This video would strike a chord as it cut to the heart of the realities of many young Nigerians. No surprise then that it quickly amassed over 2 million views within a month of release.

Instead of spinning Am I a Yahoo boy as a cautionary tale and placing himself as a voice of the street, Naira Marley took the conscious decision to double down on his support for cyber crime, asking people to glorify whatever they choose to do in life and making the argument that Yahoo Yahoo (local term for internet fraud) is responsible for all the money circulating in the economy.

This meltdown was self-inflicted and was streamed live on social media. It was unbelievable really, shocking sometimes, the depths that Naira Marley was prepared to sink to in the struggle for relevancy. It is hard to recall, a bigger case of an artiste so intent on sabotaging his own career by himself, with minimal external help.

He would go on to pick up fights with Simi and most notoriously with Rugged Man who came down hard on Naira Marley for his pro-cybercrime stance. Speaking with HipTV, Ruggedman opined, ‘’For a young upcoming artist like him, he shouldn’t be doing stuff like that. You don’t just come out and start celebrating fraud. Especially something not just in Nigeria but the whole world is frowning upon.’’

Expectedly and showing a disappointing lack of imagination, Naira Marley dismissed Ruggedman’s concerns as the ranting of a has been.

A twist in the tale

On the 10th of May (his birthday), Naira Marley, Zlatan Ibile and three other persons were picked up by officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

The commission filed 11 charges of credit card fraud and arraigned Marley and company before a federal high court. According to the EFCC, Marley had at least three credit cards that weren’t his own and possessed five allegedly counterfeit cards with the intent to defraud. Facing 7 years in prison if convicted, Naira Marley pleaded not guilty and was subsequently released on bail, but only after spending 10 days behind bars.

At the Ikoyi federal high court on the day of his bail hearing, hundreds of fans were gathered outside to cheer Naira Marley on as he made his way into the premises. “Free Naira Marley” could be heard in pockets of places. A bigger crowd was waiting as he stepped out. The usually laid back Naira Marley displayed his appreciation by raising his fists in the air, Fela style.

Born Azeez Fashola in 1991 and raised for a spell in the Agege area of Lagos, Naira Marley took on the moniker on account of his felt kinship with the Jamaican legend, Bob Marley, a figure he still refers to as his “dad.” The Naira he imagines, came from his proper Yoruba accent that lingered when he moved to the United Kingdom.

Living in Peckham came with its peculiar challenges, some of which included gang violence, police bust ups- his 2017 song Japa whose video describes a run in with the police is semi-autobiographical- and relationships that didn’t quite work out. An attempt to study Business Law at Crossways College was aborted as Naira Marley fell into music making.

It wasn’t immediately obvious to him that he was going to be making music. His earlier attempts at showbiz were focused on hosting events and working as a voice over artiste. What little funds generated was sometimes ploughed into studio sessions with his like-minded, dread locked pals, the No Manners crew. In his telling, “They recorded something and there was space on the track- and they were like, ‘jump on it!’ I was like, ‘are you sure? In my accent?’ but I jumped on it anyway.’’

According to Marley, his verse was a hit with the crew and his rapping career kicked off shortly. The crew had an underground breakout in 2014 with Marry Juana, an obvious play on marijuana that featured grime and rap elements prominently. Minor singles followed including an initial collaboration with Olamide, and a refix of Wizkid’s Baba Nla.

As it became clearer that the Nigerian scene held greater opportunities, Naira Marley shifted his focus homeward and incorporated Afrobeats elements into his sound. This would pay off with the success of both Issa goal and Am I a Yahoo boy.

Next steps

Since being granted bail- the case has been postponed till October- the usually filter free Naira Marley has maintained an awkward silence, perhaps as he recovers from the trauma. His management has been busy though, going forward with a spin that puts the entire saga as an attempt to censor Marley’s basic human rights.

In a public statement, Marley’s management claimed, ‘’Naira Marley is an artiste that speaks for the street, those who do not have a voice, not only in Nigeria but in the UK also. Although his messages may come across misconstrued, he loves his country, he cares for his people and wants people to feel free and happy when they listen to his music.’’

And therein lies a sliver of opportunity for Naira Marley and his team to commit to a reinvention strategy that portrays him as a victim of state bullying. The EFCC has been known to throw away big stakes high profile case and going by statements credited to EFCC officials, the case against Naira Marley might be more heat than substance.

Naira Marley has with this drama, generated loads of publicity for himself, the kind that would usually cost millions of Naira to acquire. But what he does with it may be the key to determine what kind of career he is going to have after it all dies down. A full on 360 turn around might be the most obvious, not this would not be the most convincing approach. Regardless, Marley will have to seriously consider distancing himself from supporting any kind of criminal activity in the nearest future. It doesn’t matter how many people he thinks he is speaking for. A crime is a crime regardless of circumstances leading to it.

There is an audience for Marley’s music obviously and events have shown that people are willing to forgive their favorite celebrities even the most grievous of missteps. It took a few years and an irresistible song to return a contemporary of Marley’s who once faked his death via a PR stunt gone wrong, back to playlists across the country. There is no reason Naira Marley cannot be rule the charts again. He’s been foolish yes, but it is nothing a little deliberate strategizing cannot fix. Actually, make that a lot.






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