The Naira Marley trilogy—-Soapy, Opotoyi, and Am I a Yahoo Boy?—is a study in curious unification: it has that capacity to melt into one fanatic crowd, a herd of impenitent sinners and venturesome saints. And this unity is no respecter of geography; it exists in the club, the pub or even the cathedral. The artiste himself cheekily identifies his crowd—-‘Marlians’—-as folks with ‘no manners’, a rather problematic yet predictable nomenclature.
First off, the ubiquity of Naira Marley’s sounds has shown that the larger import of his works on culture and society can be dissected without an outright stifling of his art, which tilts heavily towards and draws inspiration from (social) defiance.
In any case, if handled quite well, defiance and rebellion are potent vehicles of artistic expression.
For instance, as much as it is defined by perceptive songwriting, rare facility for excellent instrumentation, and all-round brilliance, Fela’s legendary status is equally steeped in rebelliousness. And from the heyday of Eedris Abdulkareem, every artiste willing to be taken seriously has had to take a cue from the Fela’s ‘Protest Manual’.
Like Fela (whose audience, in retrospect, perhaps had richer tastes and appeared more concerned about pressing social issues), these contemporary artistes also know their audiences, and they understand that these ‘Soapy‘-crooning millenials are not typically Fela’s.
But unlike Fela, who protested bad governance and other shenanigans of the government by walking the talk, not a few of these artistes now engage the state from the safety of their recording studios and Twitter pages. Others, like 9ice and Naira Marley, have invented a new concern for their own brand of the Fela Rebellion: Yahoo-yahoo and associated vices.
Naira Marley understands this audience demography quite well, and he has built his appeal around this delicate concern, consciously or otherwise. When in the second verse of ‘Am I a Yahoo Boy?’, he (mis)appropriates Fela, and invokes the spirit of Mandela and M.K.O Abiola, all perceived freedom fighters, it was a ploy, an attempt to legitimise his own doctored version of the ‘Fela Rebellion’. Quite expectedly, the result was a marvel: he gained more Twitter followers and, of course, more notoriety. With such fanatic support comes the confidence to spice up one’s madness. (And today, what else qualifies an artiste as a ‘hero’ other than being ‘hounded’, first, by an online mob and later by agents of the state—rightly or otherwise? It matters not if he is accused of elevating sleaze and scam.)
Now, to be sure, like Olamide’s ill-conceived visuals for the smash hit ‘Science Student’, the song (Am I a Yahoo Boy?) is a tongue-in-cheek attempt at condemning social vices. Midway into both songs, it becomes crystal clear that the desired optics failed, rather fabulously, to bury the intent: both artistes may have arrived the studio for the recording of their songs immediately after engaging in the same acts they (pretend to) condemn. The tell-tale signs aren’t that obscure, anyway: while Olamide’s homily-themed video and the clever-by-half “Say No To Drugs” message apparently came as an after-thought, Naira Marley’s cheeky lyrics failed him; both songs are a mixture of impotent satire and unsuccesful metaphors. In the case of Naira Marley, if there is one thing the lyrics did successfully, it only altered the arrangement of the song’s title: I am a Yahoo Boy.
And so, quite understandably, a significant part of the conversations around Naira Marley’s art is steeped in social commentary. This is relatively predictable because art can’t exist in isolation; it’s created within the context of culture and society.
But to place an artiste’s works beneath the optics of his conducts outside the studio is to stiffle art and its variegated shades of expressions. Then comes the big question: can we appreciate Naira Marley and his art without recourse to social commentary—-and its inevitable judgemental sledgehammer? Perhaps.
For one, the artiste enjoys what he does just as ‘Marlians’ do too, or so it seems, and this makes his art worthy of an independent assessment, one devoid of sanctimonious verdicts.
If considered within the context of the fanatic followership the artiste now enjoys particularly in Western Nigeria, the Naira Marley trinity (‘Opotoyi’ especially) deserves arty treatment. And for me, that the artiste has escaped obscurity and graduated into the zeitgeist shows one thing: there is (a) Fuji to Naira Marley’s madness.
Fuji relies essentially on ‘Saje’—-raunchy lyrics—and ‘Alujo’, fast-tempo dance track, two of the vital elements in which Naira Marley’s appeal lies. For instance, strip ‘Opotoyi’ of its short duration and what you’d have is another Fuji sound in the cheekily named ‘Afrobeats’ form. Of course the correlation is no surprise: Fuji itself has its root in a chaos of sounds—-Juju, Apala, Sakara, Awurebe, Afrobeat, among others. Naira Marley’s fanatic appeal, therefore, becomes quite easy to approach.
There is the call-and-response dimension that almost all of Naira Marley’s works take, an indisputable element of Fuji sound. There is the trademark praise-singing that is the staple of Fuji, Juju and other indigenous sounds. There is also the occasional reference to Islamic theology, as evident in Soapy. (Of course it is needless to point out here that Fuji has its roots in Islamic culture, especially as practiced in Western Nigeria.)
Then comes the one haunting question: Will Naira Marley sustain this tempo for long? Well, er…it’s quite unlikely.
First off, there is something fascinating about irreverent art which endears it to many especially at the early stage of an artiste’s emergence. The danger, however, is that such craze does not guarantee longevity. Besides, there is a certain monotony to Naira Marley’s sound, one which exposes his work to redundancy. In terms of rythm and flow, Opotoyi, for instance, is not markedly different from Soapy. The lyrics of the track, too, could be mistaken for that of a mere sequel.
And so talking about longevity, the history book has a hint: in the autumn of the noughties, there was a certain Terry G who hugged the limelight because of his irreverent brand of “Ginger-Swagger” performance. He has since descended into obscurity, largely because there is always an expiry date for every craze.
To avert the Terry G curse, Marlians could perhaps help their favourite artiste to, as Naira Marley himself is wont to say, ‘Te’se le bo’ (go spiritual over his case).
Oladeinde tweets via @ola_deinde