Midway through “Opotoyi“, Naira Marley’s first song since his release on bail as he faces charges of fraud, the rapper stops what is a fast-tempo dance song to preach:

Ko s’ogun aiku, iku lo gara ju, werey to’n s’ogun aiku fun gan, t’oba ku tan bawo lo se fe gba refund

In English: “There’s no way to beat death; if there’s anyone who’s gullible enough to pay for such charms, how will he get his refund if he dies?”

In isolation, it would be a confounding statement, but as a part of “Opotoyi”, it is a targeted show-off of street smarts that stands out on a song that’s little more than an exercise in crass shit-talking, delivered in perfect street lingo.

In the last few months, the rapper/singer, real name Afeez Fashola, has become a phenomenon mired in controversy. Not much is known of his early life. He moved to the UK as a teenager. According to a recently-surfaced news report, he was one of many young people declared wanted by Lewisham Police for crimes ranging from robbery to sexual assault on a night bus in 2014. He made a light splash in the UK rap scene shortly after before a brief hiatus.

When he returned, he was the perfect hybrid of two cultures. Naira Marley raps in a mix of Pidgin, English and Yoruba in a drugged drawl spiced with a South London accent. In subject matter, he’s more similar to Obesere, the vulgar Nigerian fuji icon than Kida Kudz, another Nigerian/UK rapper from his generation.

A string of hits and ample use of social media, buoyed by strategic friendships with Lagos socialite, Rahman Jago and one of the hottest commodities in Nigerian music, Zlatan Ibile, shot him into the top 10 of streaming charts and made him a party staple.

Since March 2019, Naira Marley has owned at least two of the 10 most streamed songs in Nigeria. In a notoriously fickle music space like Nigeria’s, such a drastic change in fortunes often inspires artists to tighten their bootstraps. Not Marley.

Over the course of three months starting April 2019, Naira Marley grabbed a seat on the back of outrage and shot himself to infamy. On April 6, soft-spoken singer/songwriter Simi criticised internet fraudsters in a Live session on her Instagram. Simi has an appetite for social commentary on issues from football to politics; and after several tweets on the topic, a fan had told her to leave yahoo boys alone.

The IG live session appeared spontaneous but it was not unwarranted. As Simi would go on to say, “I’m not the problem, the world is laughing at us”. Nigeria has earned an unhealthy reputation for breeding a daring strain of internet fraudsters who, in 2017, earned themselves the 3rd spot in global internet crimes

They are the more imaginative spawn of the ‘pen pal’ fraudsters of Nigeria’s 1980s, and more profitable as well —  About N127 billion was lost to cybercrime in Nigeria in 2015, according to Professor Umar Danbatta, CEO of the Nigerian Communications Commission. They haven’t discarded the old playbook either — Nigerian prince scams still rake in over $700,000 a year, as this report by the CNBC claims.

In a sea of vitriolic responses to Simi’s video, Naira Marley stood tall, launched his own Instagram live session and offered reasons, including reparations for the transatlantic slave trade, on why internet fraud is justified.

The events that followed read like the final chapters of a Ben Okri book. Days later, on April 22, Naira Marley took to Instagram to accuse Simi of snubbing him at an event, “@symplysimi I saw u at d homecoming last night, u look sad & upset.. why? Am I a yahoo boy?” he wrote beneath a picture of him. The caption has since been changed.

No publicity is bad publicity, someone once said. And once online conversation pushed the spat to viral proportions, it was only a matter of time before Naira would take advantage. Released on May 9, “Am I A Yahoo Boy”, a trap single featuring Zlatan, expanded on Marley’s IG video by asking rhetorically, if the two were in fact internet fraudsters. Within hours, the song shot to the top of digital streaming charts. 

Naira Marley may have offered answers on the song but the EFCC wanted more. As the cock crowed in the wee hours of May 10, Zlatan, Naira Marley and three others were arrested during a raid on Zlatan’s residence at Ikate, Lekki, Lagos.

While Zlatan regained his freedom after days of questioning, Naira Marley’s fate was more thorough. On May 30, the rapper was arraigned before a Lagos court on 11 counts of violating the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015, and granted bail in the sum of 2 million naira. Days later, Marley was free.

Many had first expected Naira Marley’s first song after his arrest to be a plaintive reaction to his stint in jail. Music typically reflects the state of whoever’s making it. As shown by every artist from Sinzu to Zlatan, who recorded “Four Days In Ekotie-Eboh” upon his own release, time behind bars typically inspires bars of the written kind. 

Instead, Naira released “Opotoyi (Marlians)”, a lewd song for drunken nights, filled with vulgar appraisals of the female body and drug use. In any other artist’s case, it would have gone down as a wasted opportunity to attract valuable sympathy. For Naira Marley however, his devotion to a certain way of life and his efforts to celebrate it trump everything else.

Despite introducing himself to the audience as a semi-IJGB schooled in Lagos street life, Naira Marley has always shown allegiance to the latter part of his identity. His early releases wouldn’t sound out of place on a London DJ’s playlist, but over time, Naira has gradually unveiled his ‘real face’. 

From his frequent Instagram Live sessions to his very public responses to trending issues and his affiliation with suspected gang members, even when singing about seemingly innocuous topics like football on “Issa Goal” or the paparazzi on “Illuminati”, Naira has always offered up subtle and sometimes overt praise for two of the biggest scourges that are defining a generation of Nigerian youth today — internet fraud and drug abuse.

Covered by the sheen of celebrity and glossy music videos, Naira Marley can be easy to digest. At best, he’s seen as a playful charlatan; at worst, a harmless nihilist. It belies the fact that the real-life version of the persona that he offers is much darker.

You’ve seen him before; the average street boy who is as quick to hustle for a wad of notes as he is to explore the shorter route there. He doesn’t care what you think; he is often eager to project power, physical or financial. He is one of the people who make up Naira Marley’s core fanbase.

The “Marlians”, as they are called, are a survivalist bunch, groomed in a dog-eat-dog world where morality is a fickle construct and strength in numbers is a policy. While well-meaning Nigerians applauded on Twitter his arrest, they complained that EFCC chose to arrest him on his birthday. 

The burning question of how Naira Marley secured their attention and devotion and became a “national star” is worth discussing. For decades, the music of Nigeria’s most culturally-vibrant ghettos has often existed in its own vacuum – with only a few artists making the journey to nationwide acceptance and becoming relative ambassadors. The analogy that best describes this process is crossing the third mainland bridge.

No one crosses the Third Mainland Bridge except to meet a need on the other side. In a sense, it can feel more like a journey between social classes, than a trip on a 14km-long bridge. One end of the bridge has always felt left out when it comes to popular music.

It’s easy to recognise what we’ve come to describe as street music – amateurish production, aggressive delivery, subject matter that focuses on dance or occasionally larger-than-life ideas ranging from ‘hustle’ to ‘fate’. 

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Since Kerewa became a national hit and topic of concern among Nigerian parents fearing for their impressionable young kids, the music of Nigeria’s slums has only ever blown up courtesy of acceptance on the other side of the bridge – in Lekki’s snazzy clubs and lounges, behind location filters and retro-cameras of highbrow Lagos and its islands.

The Shaku-Shaku sound and dance that dominated 2018 are the most definitive examples. According to its biggest ambassadors, Slimcase and Mr Real, Shaku-Shaku and the drum-heavy sound of hit songs like”Legbegbe” and “Diet” became integral parts of the culture in Agege, a not-so-highbrow area of Lagos since 2016. Yet it did not reach nationwide acceptance until the dance became a social media phenomenon, with celebrities from Genevieve to D’banj taking stabs at it. 

It soon showed up in the Island’s biggest clubs. DJs, ever the willing suppliers, found the songs to fit – and introduced new audiences to its stalwarts. Collaborations spurred more hits and by the time concert season came in December 2018, the only thing that mattered was Shaku-Shaku. 

On your first attempt to juggle your memory, it would appear Naira Marley’s journey happened on the shoulders of the Zanku – the dance style popularised by Zlatan that leveraged Shaku-Shaku’s entry into the mainstream and hasn’t gone away since. 

The reality is much less linear: Naira Marley crossed the third mainland a lot earlier, in the most innocuous of ways. It happened thanks to a song you may remember from that one time Nigeria’s World Cup jersey stunned the world – 2018’s “Issa Goal”.

Unknown to most of his audience prior to its release, the song presented Naira Marley as a UK resident who was in love with the country of his birth and had the lingo to earn his place alongside Lil Kesh and Olamide . It was also picked up by Coca-Cola as the Nigerian National Team’s unofficial theme song for the 2018 World Cup. It was a move which, unwittingly, put him in a class alongside other prominent young Nigerians with more friendly brands, like Alex Iwobi and Wizkid. 

His follow-up, “Japa” contains a more overt reference to credit card fraud, but if anyone heard, and some people raised concerns, everyone soon got drowned out by the noise of feet stomping on both sides of the bridge. 

“Am I A Yahoo Boy” will perhaps go down as the most definitive song in Naira Marley’s career. The song’s title was the perfect query for the situation that birthed it – which is why it is worth noting that both artistes glorify internet fraud on a song which was supposed to acquit them of these accusations. Naira Marley’s arrest was celebrated in certain circles as a quick reaction to a budding menace. And it would have an effect, just not the one we expected — Marley’s message had stuck.

In the eyes of his fans, he’s become the street kid who’d made it enough to earn himself a love/hate relationship with the elite. He’s known by everyone from A-list artists to an audience out of Nigeria and the UK that loves his music but refuses to accept his violent nihilism —  a way of life that Marlians are all too familiar with. What’s not to aspire to?

Make no mistake; Naira Marley knows exactly what he’s doing. Behind the braids, droopy eyes and seemingly haphazard behaviour is an artist who cross-pollinated Nigerian and UK street culture to produce a hybrid that has done what countless PR firms and record labels have struggled to pull off. 

He’s dropped three songs since his arrest in May: “Why”, “Opotoyi” and “Soapy”. If you’re willing to explore the pattern, it goes far beyond his recent releases; he’s learned to pick the most targeted song titles, using words that draw instant reaction or take advantage of a trend.

“Issa Goal” made him one of the faces of a country’s appearance at the World Cup. “Japa” brought a common slang to life by embodying a generation’s obsession with evading haters, hard times or in his case, London’s Met Police. “Illuminati” was an attempt to elevate perceptions of his stardom by name-dropping a group that is believed by some to give musicians stardom in exchange for their souls. “Am I A Yahoo Boy” took advantage of the heavy buzz following his defence of internet fraud. “Opotoyi” stamped the “Marlians” as a community. Each of these songs has been streamed over one million times.

His latest release, an unfortunate dance single titled “Soapy” is an effort to strengthen his hold on that community. The song references his stint in jail and has been described as an effort to draw attention to the terrible conditions in Nigerian jails. However, on the morning of its release, Naira Marley took to social media to unveil the “Ijo Soapy”, the accompanying dance style that mimics public masturbation. It has taken only a few days for the song to become a menace.

“Don’t you trust me; trust me, I don’t trust myself” – Naira Marley (“Jogor“, Zlatan, Kesh and Naira Marley, 2018)

What Naira Marley represents isn’t just his music. The rapper may be his own biggest fan and his brand of pedagogy is largely self-serving. What more evidence does one need than that cringe-worthy self-comparison to Africa’s greatest individuals – Fela Kuti, Nelson Mandela – on “Am I A Yahoo Boy?”. 

Yet it’s finding a greater audience than we expected because it’s the reality of a street culture that we’ve ignored for so long. It’s why the primary defence by most of his fans is that his music reflects reality; they’re correct. If terms like ‘maga’, ‘opotoyi’, ‘ase’ seem to be entering the popular lexicon, it’s because they were already in use before – albeit on the wrong side of the bridge. 

The best evidence of the diversity of Naira Marley’s clan is best found on his Instagram. Hundreds of his fans have volunteered submissions of themselves doing his Ijo Soapy. Those who have made it to his page are more varied than you’ll expect; a group of young Peckham teenagers dancing around in circles, young Nigerian women in glossy lace at an Owambe, a stripper and not least by any means, Lil Kesh.

He may be an outcast in the hallowed halls of Naija twitter. But in the places where it often matters, away from the moral certitudes of ‘woke’ conversations, Naira Marley has held himself up a beacon of rebellion and young adult angst.

Like Simi did in April, many of Naira Marley’s colleagues have described his newest offering as what it is — a new low. Dancer, Kaffy is the latest person to do this. “In the history of Naija dance, I’ve never seen a more disgusting dance immoral dance called Soapy. It should never be encouraged,” she wrote in an Instagram post.

For all its worth, her voice and that of many others count. But when compared with the viral rates with which new videos of people dancing Soapy are popping up on social media, the reality gets even more worrying.

The question we need to ask is this: Are we ready for an artist who does not care what anybody thinks and has a horde of raucous if misdirected young adult males hanging on his every pronouncement?

Naira Marley knows what he’s doing, do we?

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Zikoko amplifies African youth culture by curating and creating smart and joyful content for young Africans and the world.