By EROMO EGBEJULE
It is imperative to begin this article real quick with two caveats.
First, one must stress that Naira Marley is a phenomenon. I’ve tweeted in the past that he is an institution and I admitted that much in this article about the top Afropop tracks of 2019 for The Guardian (UK).
I’m no fan and do not subscribe to his Marlian philosophy but I can acknowledge that he makes bloody good music. Specifically Soapy and Mafo, that masterpiece of a collaboration with Young Jonn.
Secondly, I’m not God, so this piece is not law. Feel free to stop reading here because this piece could offend your Marlian sensibilities.
Naira Marley’s ascendancy has been swift, propelled by a number of things including his EFCC case, general anti-establishment stance and a mastery of social media similar to the style that Lil Nas X propagated. [Two people in the industry who should know, swear that @Chuuzus is the one reportedly handling that account. They gave me no proof so that remains a rumour but whoever it is has done a damn good job]
These alongside Naira’s other nasty antics have managed to weld people across the social pyramid strata into one large movement with focal points in southern Nigeria and London. After he was freed on bail in June 2019, he built on the momentum generated by Am I A Yahoo Boy, releasing Soapy and winning over the stoniest of hearts all year. All in all, he had an arguably better year than everyone except Burna Boy.
In Nigerian English, “God picked his call”.
But as we settle into 2020, the writing on the wall is that he will rapidly become a victim of his own high impressions and find it hard to replicate the success of 2019. There are a few reasons why.
In that Guardian piece, I wrote that “his grime flow, lewd lyrics, nimble footwork, and unfiltered tweets are expanding that cult following internationally”. It is important to clarify here and now that the said cult following will most likely stay constrained to both Nigeria and the UK.
He sings (or grunts) and raps mostly in Yoruba. That alone can’t scale. Ask Small Doctor. Ask 9ice.
If you watched him perform at AfroNation in Accra in December 2019 – I did – then you would’ve noticed how people were briefly enthralled by his footwork but could not mouth the words because they were mostly in Yoruba. It did not help that he kept pausing between songs and so his transition from song to song on stage was weak – like the deejaying of a certain DJ Xclusive. Unsurprisingly, the next day, he was trending on Ghanaian Twitter for what many labelled an average performance. One Lagos-based Marlian who was in Accra made the excuse that her president was saving his energy for Marlian Fest in Lagos the next day.
He has a limited musical range too. His debut album, Lord of the Lamba, was a spectacularly average record and its shelf life, give or take, is a year. Another dance move will pop up in a few months and just as the zanku obliterated shaku shaku, he might be swallowed up by a new wave.
Zlatan’s career may follow a similar path. Both men are simply riding a wave and are not even the best Yoruba rappers around, commercially or lyrically. However, the zanku pioneer is learning a few tricks; he’s hopped on an interesting Hausa-zanku track to be released soon by a young Northern rapper. There is the possibility that that could blow up at least regionally and earn him hits at parties in that part of the country and a new lease of life.
There’s an unreleased Afrobeats song with Caribbean-leaning Riddims and a Nicki Minaj verse that I also recently listened to – further evidence of the trend I predicted in this article. Everyone is fine-tuning their strategies and Naira Marley will have to do so too or be lost in the sea of one-season wonders.
Movements come and go. Before Naira Marley, there was Terry G. Naira Marley’s footwork is a great thing to behold but his stage performances do not hold a candle to Terry G’s superior athleticism. Can he produce like that brilliant madman and multi-instrumentalist who held us spellbound for all of 2009 with two 5-minute hits back to back that had no hooks? Do we also compare their looks? Or the dozen artistes like illBliss, AY.com, Jamix, 2Shotz, Timaya etc that Terry G handed megahits to? Eventually, he faded into oblivion because he stuck to the same formula.
His fanbase is really not that loyal or long-suffering. A good number of Marlians moved from Terry G to Da Grin to Olamide to Small Doctor, Mr. Real/Slimcase and now Naira Marley. They will not stick because they move with the trend. If Olamide and Naira Marley have an altercation tomorrow, it is doubtful that most mainland folks will side with the latter. Ask Don Jazzy. If Naira Marley goes to jail tomorrow, that’s also the end.As an OAP friend told me, his transition from alleged fraudster to prisoner to pop star makes him fascinating and, by nature, fascination can be short term.”
Just as importantly, Naira Marley has made the grave mistake of signing four new artistes at once. As surely as the sun will set tomorrow, the outcome will be a compounding interest – in the negative. On the surface, it seems like a decent humanitarian move to sign other acts who need the big break, but a music label is not a charity organisation. Does Naira Marley have the social capital to move corporate Nigeria to back his signees or the capital expenditure to fund the careers of his label-mates AND himself simultaneously?
Is there even an existing contract between him and them? The lack of good A&R shows on the LOL project; if that lack of coherence can adversely affect an established star like him, can anyone guess how much worse the singles or EPs of his artistes will be?
His contemporaries like Fireboy, Rema, Joeboy make better music and have the solid structures (and the weight of visionary godfathers in Olamide, Don Jazzy and Eazi) backing them. The last two even have venture capital funding to look to. Naira Marley has not been convicted for Yahoo-Yahoo so he remains innocent until proven guilty but if hypothetically he is a fraudster, can his accidental millions have a similar impact on Marlian Records?
Major brands are worried about handing him major endorsement deals because of the vulgarity of his music, his frequent tiffs with the authorities and the EFCC case that just won’t go away. Contrast that with Olamide who has corporate Lagos on lockdown, as well as Lagos politicians and monarchs on speed dial.
Perhaps Naira Marley can learn from him or Shatta Wale in nearby Ghana. Since springing up on the scene circa 2004, he has divided the fanbase of Sarkodie, Samini, and Stonebwoy while also retaining most of his own original Shatta Movement following. He’s aligned himself to the larger dancehall/reggae movement and scaled to the Caribbean with patois and pidgin English, while constantly reinventing himself.
For now, Naira Marley remains one of the biggest artistes out of Nigeria but can his career get past 2020 or 2021 max, without backpedaling? Can he last longer than the masturbatory process that he so glorifies?