Depending on who you talk to, Naira Marley is either the scourge of the next generation of Nigerians or their saviour. But whoever’s talking, the pop star – arguably the most controversial in Africa – is spoken about in near-mythological tones, which makes his amiability very arresting when we meet in London a few weeks before lockdown.
He arrives flanked by an entourage, photoshoot-ready in a reflective puffer, and oscillates between class clown and deep thought. To some, the 25-year-old’s meteoric rise over the past two years has been sudden: selling out Brixton Academy in three minutes; accruing three million Instagram followers, tens of millions of streams, and a cult-like fandom. But the signs of stardom have always been there.
Born Afeez Fashola in Agege, Lagos, Marley moved to Peckham, London, aged 11. As a teen he was a keen freestyle rapper, but was initially more interested in the management side of music. During a studio session he facilitated for friends in 2014, he recorded the instant hit Marry Juana on a whim. The track helped usher in the fusion of UK rap, dancehall and Afrobeats that now frequently hits the UK charts, by such artists as J Hus, Darkoo, Young T & Bugsey. The blend of influences is referenced in his name: Naira is the currency of Nigeria, and Marley reggae royalty.
“I knew it was a new sound and I wasn’t sure if people were gonna take to it,” he says. “I didn’t know it would be a big impact, with everyone following afterwards.” African intonation is now commonplace in the UK music scene, but back then, a Caribbean lilt was the standard among MCs – regardless of their background. “I was already proud of being African and had a problem with the fact we couldn’t be ourselves,” he says. “So I just went with my accent and it sounded wavy.”
Marley made waves with UK rap bangers Back2Work and Money On the Road. It was difficult to immediately associate him with one genre: he had a scampish likability combined with the edge of a road rapper. When he started frequently visiting Lagos, his music took on the sunnier sound of Afrobeats and his popularity skyrocketed.
When Marley shared a snippet of his 2018 single Issa Goal on Instagram, it instantly launched the social media trend that went on to dominate that summer, the shaku shaku dance, and became the semi-official song for the Nigerian football team. He launched the label Marlian Music, and is currently on the lookout for its first female artist. “I actually want a fat girl,” he says with a grin. “Music is spiritual – it’s not about the look only. There’s actually fat people in the world, you know? It doesn’t have to be skinny people singing only.”
But there has been a major bump in this ascent: his arrest by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). It began when another Afrobeats artist, Simi, chastised the actions of the country’s “Yahoo boys” – internet conmen nicknamed after the search engine. In response, Marley wrote an Instagram post saying: “If u know about slavery … yahoo no b crime” and later asked Nigerians to “pray for internet fraudsters” rather than criticise them, arguing that they kept money circulating in the country. Nigeria is keen to shed its reputation for internet fraud, and Marley was accused of exacerbating it.
A backlash followed, further whipped up by Marley’s antagonistically titled single Am I a Yahoo Boy featuring Nigerian rapper Zlatan. The lyrics were provocative (the Nigerian government is cast as “thieves”) as was the video, which featured a mock-up of Marley being arrested. The day after its release, he and Zlatan were arrested in real life along with three others.
Marley was held in custody for 35 days and the case is ongoing, meaning he can’t comment on it directly. He faces 11 charges of credit-card fraud, for allegedly conspiring to use credit card numbers that didn’t belong to him, and having counterfeit cards as well as cards that weren’t his own. If convicted, he could be jailed for up to seven years. He has pleaded not guilty. In a statement, his management argued he was being held “based on a cheeky song”.
“Naira did not publicly [defend] those who commit fraud,” it reads. “He expressed his view on the situation, which was simply his opinion.” He appears undeterred: the cover art of his single Why?, released shortly after his arrest, shows him raising his arms in handcuffs. In Bad Influence, he continues to take potshots at Nigeria’s leaders, declaring himself a scapegoat for their own failings. “We want school, but they give us prison,” is one of the lyrics. He tells me: “I’ve always been political because I was born in Nigeria, where everything is not the way it’s meant to be. I’ve always been against the corruption.”
Comparisons between the music of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti and the contemporary pop style Afrobeats are common. But Marley, who sings “they want to treat me like they treated Fela”, is also drawing comparisons with the government’s repression of Kuti, who was arrested more than 200 times after speaking out against Nigeria’s violent, corrupt mid-century regime. “All my music is not straight at the government, straight political, but there’s a lot of similarities,” he says. “The weed, the I-don’t-care attitude, the freedom – speaking your mind and the government coming to arrest you.”
I ask him what he learned during his time in prison in Lagos. “That I’m powerful,” he says without any pause. “Not to be big-headed, but I influence a lot of people.” His devoted fanbase, known as Marlians, protested outside the EFCC headquarters for the entirety of his stay and rallied around him with the #FreeNairaMarley hashtag.
His impact is undeniable: from helping to pioneer the Afrobashment style, to heading viral dance crazes, such as the shaku shaku and the tesumole dance. Soapy, his first major single since his arrest, is accompanied by a dance simulating masturbation, and has taken over the streets of Lagos, unsurprisingly provoking ire. But the Marlians are the biggest testament to his influence, something that goes beyond mere fandom.
“I’m a Marlian myself,” he says. “It’s more of a way of life. It’s a country.”
“A religion,” his manager offers from across the room, laughing. “A cult!”
The loosely defined Marlian ideology almost exists outside of Marley himself. It’s chiefly about pushing back against a strangling status quo and its adherents have their own rules – Marlians don’t wear belts or celebrate Valentine’s Day, nor do they do a whole host of other arbitrary things, having decided that this is the way to best embody the spirit of their musical deity.
Marley is laid back about most of the rules created in his name, but makes it clear he doesn’t agree with everything. He mentions a recent story that hit the Nigerian press, regarding a teen Marlian who was suspended for not wearing underwear to school, as per alleged Marlian guidelines.
“I didn’t tell them not to wear pant,” he shrugs. “There’s even pastors praying in church saying, ‘I cast the spirit of Marlian out of your children. Your children will graduate!’”
With his dreads, penchant for weed and disregard for authority, Marley is the embodiment of everything that inherently conservative Nigerian society dislikes, particularly in its youth. He is the physical manifestation of parents’ fears over their children joining “bad gang” – boasting of “no mannaz”, and rubbishing Nigerian higher education.
His ubiquity within the Nigerian press, equal parts erroneous and hysterical, means anything he says makes headlines. Though a great deal is deliberately provocative, there is always method in his madness, he assures. Even Soapy has more to it that its immediate lewd premise: it’s a mediation on his prison experience. “I just added the dance so it wasn’t as serious,” he says.
One of his most controversial statements on Twitter – “Marlians Don’t Graduate, We Drop Out” – led to inevitable uproar in a nation where formal education is highly valued. He tells me his message was misconstrued: “There are corporate Marlians, there are dropout Marlians – all kind of Marlians.” Another statement that rankled was: “Having a big booty is better than having a masters degree.” Though on the surface ridiculous, the sentiment may be difficult to dispute. Last year, 55% of young people in Nigeria aged 15 to 35 were unemployed, and graduates were among the worst affected. Meanwhile, the country’s Instagram models and influencers are big business.
“It’s not a joke!” he says emphatically. “I don’t want it to be better, but it is better, in Nigeria especially: big-bummed girls that didn’t even graduate can get a job easily. It’s better to have a big bum than qualifications – you have more of a chance.”
This is what draws young Nigerians to Marley most of all: his willingness to confront the establishment’s hypocrisy.
“They are still backwards,” he says. “They’re not free, they don’t believe in equality, they don’t believe, if you’re 18, you can make decisions yourself. They don’t believe in freedom of speech. I’m making people speak their mind, making people make their own decisions.” Marley knows something that his naysayers don’t yet seem to have grasped: the more they clutch their pearls, the more powerful he becomes.