Chude Jideonwo: Why Naira Marley is the Culture Icon of the Year

Naira Marley can smell your fear.

He can smell your desperate need to be liked and approved of. He can smell the desire to be part of polite society, to maintain the appearances and conventions that make you accepted in a tribe. He can smell the double standards that emerge when a mob seeks to establish its own righteousness, so it can signal its virtue and reap the benefits of social approval.

He can smell that many are not living in their truths, are not speaking their minds, and are frightened by those who do; frightened enough to want to shut them down – either out of envy, or panic. He can smell the pitiful hiding behind personal marks and society’s norms. He can smell the fear that drives people to maintain the status quo, and lose their voices.

And that’s what makes him powerful.

READ ALSO: Naira Marley may have played himself. But can he still win?

He is powerful because he doesn’t share that fear. He is powerful because he can smell it, but more than that he is powerful because he doesn’t care what those shackled by that fear choose to do to him or say about him. Or doesn’t care enough for it to affect what he says, what he does, who he is and – most importantly – the unique fire that he brings to the world.

I first heard of him when he released ‘Soapy’ (forgive me; I had been on a sabbatical from the culture for a year) and the swift backlash that followed that song. He had crossed a line, many crowed. This was one step too far, they insisted. This young man was about to destroy Nigeria’s rock-solid moral foundations (or what was left of it after Shina Peters, Salawa Abeni, Obesere, and others had finished attacking the cement of it with their delicious odes to the human anatomy, and to sex).

All for what? A song about masturbation.

But what’s wrong with masturbation? What’s wrong with singing about something multiple streams of research have proven a lot of young people and adults do regularly? And what’s wrong with singing about sex – partnered or with self? Healthy, consensual sex is an important part of the range of human possibilities; a reminder of our evolutionary origins and a testament to connection as the foundation of our being here. What’s wrong with singing about it?

I never got the outrage.

Neither did Naira.

But unlike me – coward that I yet am – he called it out. He called out the performance of outrage. He clapped back at those who, jumping on the unmoored-from-history criticism of an important tradition of eulogizing human sexuality, equated rawness with wrongness. And he didn’t call it out with anger. He called it out with an easy scorn, an unperturbed snicker. And then he released a video for the song.

He smelt the fear, the hypocrisy that it birthed, and then he spat on it.

His music is a delightful exercise in finding taboos, engaging them fully, and laughing through the stories he weaves around them. Even his supposed arrest by the EFCC (one wonders everyday if that was a stunt) he would not flinch from. Another song engaged it, turning against the bloggers and the ‘haters’ that declared the death of this new talent, and then he laughed about it.  Do I look like a Yahoo boy?

How can you not find that deeply compelling?

In a world of conformity and safety, of perfection and performance, especially in a timid Nigerian cultural space, where there are very few iconoclasts who listen only to the sound of their own sprit and where too many allow their desperate need to be liked quench the fire of their unique gifts, Naira stands tall in the distinguished, if short, roll call of the unbowed in this cultural space – Tiwa Savage, Olamide, Wizkid.

He is the latest iteration.

But he is a more powerful iteration because of the speed with which he gathered an army and then owned the conversation, and more importantly, he is more powerful because he is unimpressed by his own celebrity, or so it appears to those of us who have fallen under his spell.

The world needs more Naira Marleys.

I absolutely hope a generation of the timid are taking notes on how bright a star can shine when it refuses to allow the dimmers have their say.

For The Culture is Jideonwo’s column for spotlighting the cultural trends that run the engines of Nigeria and Africa. 

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