Tracing the rise of Naira Marley through 10 essential tracks
From underground street anthems to global dance crazes: here's your guide to the inimitable MC.
Naira Marley’s journey from prince of Peckham to cult figure in Lagos, Nigeria represents his evolution into a bonafide intercontinental rockstar: selling out shows across Africa, and trailed intently both online and off by his mass of obsessive followers, the ‘Marlians’.
Named after the Nigerian currency and known for his anti-establishment youth spirit and viral dance crazes, Naira’s wave connects the West African diaspora to their roots as he delivers his lines in a syrupy mixture of Yoruba and English.
While the likes of Wizkid and Burna Boy used 2019 as a big year to universalise their appeal, Naira is in a lane of his own that politely ignores the commerciality of Afropop and its close cousin Afrobeats.
His 2018 collaboration with Olamide and Lil Kesh, Issa Goal, became an unofficial anthem for that year’s Nigerian World Cup campaign as the international diaspora massed behind the team’s footballing efforts. But he’s had more controversial encounters too, including his investigation by the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission after he made comments and released a tongue-in-cheek track about email fraud in the country. Such is his appeal, however, that the EFCC’s efforts have so far only raised his profile and boosted his adoring fanbase.
Lord Of Lamba – shortened somewhat appropriately to ‘LOL’ – is the name of of his first substantial body of work following a four-to-five-year string of single bangers. The EP is a continuation of Naira’s juiced-up spirit, with an added dose of Yoruba and dance routines, and sets the Peckham-via-Lagos MC up for his biggest year to date.
1. Marry Juana (feat. Max Twigs)
Before gaining international attention, Naira was known by most Londoners for another sound and substance entirely. A summer anthem in 2014, Marry Juana became a soundtrack for young Londoners’ collective adolescence, with Naira introducing his “gangster with feelings” persona and signposting his marriage to a ‘do-whatever-I-like’ lifestyle. Along with music from the likes of Sneakbo and Brixton’s STP crew, Marry Juana also pioneered a blend of UK rap, dancehall, and Afrobeats that would end up dominating the UK charts years later.
Following the buzz of Marry Juana, Back2Work marked Naira’s return to the streets the following year -- literally. The video sees him tearing around South London, jiggy bopping on roads and in car parks while his friends pull stunts on dirt bikes, all soundtracked by an infectious trap beat.
3. Money On The Road (feat. Blanco and TG Millian)
Money On The Road is an ode to exactly what its title suggests. Blanco and TG Millian of drill crew Harlem Spartans pair their faster flows with Naira’s slower, relaxed way of speaking, and together they set their corner of south London as a Wild West-style playground for an enhanced game of kiss-chase with law enforcement.
4. What You Telling Me (feat. Kwamz & Narsty)
What You Telling Me sees Kwamz, Naira, and Zone 2’s Narsty celebrate their origins, as the homegrown trio tour the vibrant markets, chicken shops, and barbers of Peckham. Naira’s cheeky interjections amid the skippy drums paint a picture of pride in how far he and his peers have come, laced with a refusal to forget their roots.
JAPA is a bouncy, bass-driven profile of Naira as a real bad boy, singing “catch me if you can” at the top of his lungs. “Japaing” is defined as the act of escaping or avoiding pursuit, with special use of trickery and Yoruba demon wits. The video sees Naira fleeing the cops with a bag of cash – something that commenters have noted lends a comic irony to the EFCC later pursuit of him on fraud charges.
Opotoyi is the song that stamped Naira’s name across London and Lagos’ nightlife scenes. It’s an open call for Marlians, summoning them to the front of every crowd to do nothing but dance. Gbese (pronounced ‘beh-she’ and meaning ‘Lift your foot’ in Yoruba) is the assigned dance – although as a Marlian you can, of course, do whatever you like. Videos of his shows abroad proudly document him going at it effortlessly. My personal advice is to skip the official music video altogether and search it on social media to see exactly what it does to people first-hand.
Laden with punchy steel drums and accompanied by yet another viral dance, Soapy is one for the kids. With his repeated mantra of “do what I want because it’s my life,” Naira lives out the motto of his No Mannaz crew, questioning why he should have to ask for permission to do what he wants.
Arriving in September 2019 to soundtrack autumn sundown parties, PXTA (pronounced ‘pu-ta’), is an easy bet for anyone who likes dancing without the showy factor of a finalised routine to follow. Reflecting Naira’s carefree approach to live, there are no set moves to PXTA – just ride in step with the rumbling beat and make it up as you go.
9. Mafo (feat. Young Jonn)
The opening of Mafo lands somewhere between the rainforest and the club. Shuffling drums carry Naira and Young Jonn’s vocals as they toast their successes and flex in luxurious surrounds. Naira’s conversational flow adds intimacy to a song that celebrates the solidarity shared between himself and his followers.
It’s easy to mistake feel-good tunes for having little deeper meaning but Tesumole proves that the first listen doesn’t always tell the full story. The crazy dance routine choreographed by Naira himself might be seen as having little behind it, but the chorus translates to him asking “aren’t you a child of Jesus, lift your food and step on the devil.” It’s the sound of young Lagos – of clubs that close whenever the party does, their tables supporting anything from bottles to dancing feet.
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