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Love, money and devotion in the new religion of Naira Marley

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The day the EFCC arrested Naira Marley in Lagos; that was actually Naira Marley’s birthday. May 10 2019—that was the day the man clocked 28. As the sun was just about setting out, the financial crimes squad snatched him, together with Zlatan—a fellow rapper—and two others, and hauled them to jail. The five, said the EFCC (the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission), were suspects in an internet fraud investigation.

It didn’t help Marley’s case either that, the day before, he’d released a new record—Am I A Yahoo Boy—in which he’d painted the government as a bunch of corrupt “thieves” and sort of gives a nod to internet scammers, known in the country as Yahoo Boys. In the video for the song, he mimed being handcuffed and arrested. This controversial track might also have been a warped birthday present Marley was giving himself, because as soon as the government picked him up, his notoriety swung into a higher gear.

For a person in his line of business, this sort of hoopla, fired up by rife media coverage and social media chatter, was exactly what the doctor ordered; plus, if you were going to build a cult following, you needed a visible enemy. By arresting Naira Marley on his birthday on a charge that seemed yet unproven, the government of Nigeria gifted the man a big, fat enemy—one mighty enough to mobilise new followers and make existing ones dig in their heels in absolute devotion to the artiste they call the Marlian President.

All the ingredients Marley needed to elevate himself to cult status were now complete. It had all begun when he chose the stage name Marley. The cognomen was a tribute to Bob Marley, the undisputed greatest reggae musician of all time and freedom fighter. It is also because of Bob that Naira keeps his own hair in dreadlocks.

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And then there’s Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Just like the legend, inventor of Afrobeat—and freedom fighter, Naira Marley displays an affinity for marijuana. Heck, his first breakout hit, released when he still lived fully in Peckham Rye, South London, was titled Marry Juana. But more than smoking weed, Naira Marley has also dropped lyrics in which he compares himself to Fela, referencing the over 200 different times in Fela’s lifetime that he was taken by lawmen.

Naira insists in a documentary recently released by Vice—the media company covering pop culture and underworld grit—that the May 10 arrest was “for no reason.” This claim isn’t different from what he’d earlier said in a statement, that the 11 charges of credit card fraud the government threw at him were a reaction to “a cheeky song” and nothing more.

But it matters too that the case has remained unresolved, having been adjourned after the man was held for 35 days, and is only currently semi-free, thanks to a N2,000,000 bail. The longer the government holds Marley in its sights, the more fodder he is given to feed his persona.

Which shouldn’t be totally surprising. Just as most cult brands before him, Naira Marley’s rise follows a formula—create a deeply polarising character to champion the cause, identify an enemy, make the group exclusive (cults are a place where people go to find themselves while joining a group of others who seek the same thing), and reward commitment.

As venture capitalist Jordan Odinsky says in a well-received Medium article, “Great cult brands drive wedges between schools of thought, alliances, communities, ideologies, and even other brands. They do this by spreading their radical differences with those searching for individualism.”

More than that, according to Matthew Ragas and Bolivar Bueno in their book The Power of Cult Branding, there is also the “Look, Say, and Feel,” boxes that cult brands such as Apple, Harley Davidson, Coca-Cola, and some sports clubs must check so as to corral their followers and hold them for long.

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Of course, there are quite many critics who hate how he discounts what polite society holds dear—like university degrees and modest dressing, Naira Marley, apparently, wears the look, utters the words, and conveys a feeling that converts millions of Nigerians into Marlians. Many of these converts are from the 55% of the youth population, aged 15–35, who are unemployed and trying to work the fitful economy. A throng of them protested Marley’s arrest at the EFCC headquarters.

Ultimately, though, what does Naira Marley stand for? In that documentary, the presenter, Chuckie, asks if, while growing up on the hard streets of Peckham, he considered himself a bad boy, a gangster. Marley tells Chuckie: “I wouldn’t say I was a gangster. I’m a gangster, you know.”

When everything he says is put together, it might all mean that he’d like the world to know that, like most people, he is nothing if not a product of his experiences. Half of Marley’s stories are about the carnage he witnessed first-hand as a teenager in London; the rest are about the corruption and violence he repeatedly notes in Nigeria, and continually lyricises in his music.

“When I was growing up it was just gangs, it was just stabbings, killings… kids, adults, everyone went to jail.” This was in London. “You have to have it on you. It’s better to get caught with it than to get caught without it.” It, obviously, is some kind of way to defend yourself should the mayhem blow your way. “I think it was people drawing me hard that actually got me into it. You can’t keep asking me who am I looking at. I’m not going to let you ask me that, you know, especially in Peckham.”

Even at that, “over there in the UK, we can say anything we want,” he says. “No one is going to arrest you. Over here, you cannot do that.” He also recalls seeing thieves burnt in the streets in Lagos but nothing appears to irk him more than the government, which he considers grossly inept.

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He once said to The Guardian of London, “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.”

It just so happens that Naira Marley’s angst rides on a vehicle that powers straight to the hearts of Nigerian youth. His music, which now sits in the a fairly new genre called Afro-trap, Afrobashment, or Afroswing, is uniquely infectious. Melding Afrobeats, hip-hop, and R&B, Marley has, between 2018 and 2020, released more than 20 serious hits, including Soapy, Tesumole, Mafo, Japa, and Issa Goal. That last one was repurposed for Coke, at a handsome price, to support Nigeria’s national team, the Super Eagles, at the 2018 football World Cup.

How large the Marley fellowship will endure is up to him and perhaps the federal government. In the meantime, Naira Marley knows what he has in his hands: “[It’s] not the money,” he says to Vice. “I’ve got a voice. And I’ve got my empire, I’ve got my Marlians, my family, my members. Yes.” In his camp, they don’t call Marlians a fanbase. They call them members of a religion. Naira Marley, born Azeez Fashola in Lagos on May 10 1991, is their supreme leader.

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