Words by:
Photography and Art Direction: Stephen TAYO
Styling: Iyobosa Abigail

It’s 4pm and Azeez Adeshina Fashola – better known as Naira Marley – is only just starting his day.

“‘Ello guys!” he energetically exclaims to the camera as he takes a seat on an unassuming cream sofa. The Nigerian star, dialling in from a rainy Lagos, has good reason to be spritely. The week prior to our interview, he dropped his feverishly anticipated debut album, God’s Timing’s the Best. It was greeted by his devoted fanbase – who call themselves the Marlians – like a national holiday. The album shot to the top of Apple Music’s Nigerian charts within hours. The reaction, he says with a huge grin, has been beyond positive.

The project was released on Monday, 30 May. Notable not just because it goes against the industry convention of New Music Fridays, but because the date marks the third anniversary of the day he was granted bail. A day his fans have anointed Marlians Day.

Outfit: Arte, Jewellery: Lacebycataleya

God’s Timing’s the Best is a celebratory checkpoint in a career that has packed soaring highs and controversial lows into a relatively brief space of time. In 2015, Marley announced his arrival in fine style with Marry Juana, a lilting dancehall bop that married Afrobeats melodies and UK slang. Next up was Issa Goal, a joyous, UK funky-inflected track that triggered a flurry of videos of fans doing the ‘shaku shaku’, a viral street dance that some have nicknamed the ‘Nigerian Gangnam Style’, and became the unofficial anthem of Nigeria during the 2018 World Cup. He also has two EPs under his belt: 2015’s Gotta Dance, in which he introduced the ‘No Mannaz’ lifestyle – “She said I got no manners/ I replied yes,” he rapped of his give-no-fucks attitude on Back2Work – and 2019’s percussion-fuelled Lord of Lamba.

On 9 May, 2019, Marley released Am I a Yahoo Boy, a reference to the internet scammers for which Nigeria has become infamous – complete with an ice-cream-hued video in which the protagonist is bundled into a police van. The following day – coincidentally, his 28th birthday – he was arrested in a raid by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on charges of internet fraud and money laundering, the organisation claiming that they had found sufficient evidence of an “intent to defraud” on a laptop that had been seized. He was held in custody for 35 days. Marley soon found himself at the centre of a national scandal. Inevitably, comparisons to another revered Nigerian figure, Fela Kuti, came thick and fast; Kuti was also arrested and subsequently imprisoned in 1984 for alleged violations of currency regulation (he was later released after serving 18 months of his five-year sentence). Marley’s televised trial began in late May 2019, where he pleaded not guilty to all 11 counts raised against him. For young Nigerians, the (ongoing) trial presented Marley as an alternative leader, his outspokenness against government failure inspiring hope in a disillusioned generation.

Outfit: Reigning Champ X Jide Osifeso, Jewellery: Lacebycataleya, Shoes: Salomon

“They arrested me for no reason,” he says in a tone that suggests an acceptance of the situation. “Basically, I was talking too much. I was just running my mouth thinking it’s a free country, you know, but it’s not a free country like that…” He’s referring to the comments he made on Instagram preceding his arrest. Namely, he humanised the scammers – nicknamed Yahoo boys, after the web services provider. He demanded we understand why the individuals, who mostly live in extreme poverty, resort to online scams. “If you know about slavery u go know say yahoo no be crime…” he wrote in one caption, implying scamming is a form of reparations, redistributing the wealth stolen from Africa during colonialism. In a country plagued by decades of government corruption and with little social welfare, it’s a salient point; it is estimated that almost half of Nigeria’s population (about 206 million) lives below the poverty threshold. The controversy stoked by his comments and the subsequent legal wranglings (and prolific work rate throughout) had an unintentional effect: it sent his profile stratospheric. “It would have taken me, like, five years, to have that many followers. Everybody knew who I was immediately,” he laughs. “When I came out, my whole fanbase was in Nigeria, the love is in Nigeria, you know? It was God’s timing,” he says of the arrest. “I had to stay.”

Headpiece: Anthony Calydon

Marley was born in Lagos Island in 1991. He stayed there until the age of 12, when his parents decided to move to Peckham, south-east London, in an area named ‘Little Lagos’ in reference to its large Nigerian population. Despite being mostly surrounded by his people, Marley notes that the transition was difficult. “To be African then was not cool,” he sighs. “I actually had a strong African accent back then, I was fresh,” he chuckles. “You know the questions in class? You can’t even answer. And it’s not the white kids that laugh at you, it’s the Black British kids. The Caribbean ones that didn’t want to be classified as Africans. Now Africa is the ting, everybody wants to be African – but it was really hard at first when we wasn’t really accepted.”

Black British culture has traditionally been shaped by its Caribbean diaspora: from sound systems and popular slang through to the Windrush generation and their immense contribution to the arts. African influence, however, is just as present but perhaps less seen. While one could argue it’s a red flag to meet a Londoner who has never had Jamaican food, it’s much more common to have grown up here without ever eating jollof rice, despite London’s sizeable African community. But this is changing with the meteoric rise of Afrobeats in the UK, and subsequent birth of UK Afrobeats (a blend of Afrobeats, road rap, grime and dancehall) as its own hybrid genre – one that Marley helped launch. In the wake of Marry Juana becoming a viral hit, artists like J Hus, Kojo Funds and Belly Squad began finding success with their own take on UK Afrobeats. A sound once firmly in the Black British underground went on to become one of the nation’s most popular genres: by 2020, the UK had its own Official Afrobeats Chart. Its stars are selling out Wembley Arena in record time. It’s now normal – expected, even – to hear Afrobeats in a UK club, something that was unthinkable even ten years ago.

“Now Africa is the ting, everybody wants to be African – but it was really hard at first when we wasn’t really accepted”

It’s a little surprising, then, that Marley’s own path into music was almost accidental. “I had a couple of friends that used to rap around me, and I had a bit of cash, so at one point I said, ‘Yeah, let me go for it.’” He booked a studio session in south London, and after his friends were done recording, there was still time left on the clock – so he jumped on a beat for fun. The result was better than anything else they had recorded that day, and Naira Marley was born. “Naira is just me trying not to forget home,” he says of his moniker. “And any pounds I get, or any money I get – eventually I’m gonna turn it into naira [Nigeria’s currency].”

Though Marley has risen to become a south London treasure who counts fellow Peckham legend Giggs as a fan, his level of fame in Nigeria is next level. The Marlians are an unstoppable force in numbers so large, with a dedication so fervent, that critics of Marley and his No Mannaz MO consider him a threat to societal morality. In 2020, an Abuja educational organisation hosted a parenting workshop entitled ‘How to Take Back Your Child From the Marlians’. Across various forums you’ll find users speculating over whether the Marlians are actually a cult while sharing tips on how to avert a child’s gaze. In a 2020 The News Nigeria article, a journalist wrote: “Naira Marley’s sins are no longer remembered, everyone is dancing and singing along [to the] maverick’s music. He is unrepentantly vulgar, but who cares? Now he has won the kids and everybody is panicking.” That same year, Marley sold out London’s Brixton Academy in just five minutes without having ever released an album.

Outfit: Arte, Jewellery: Lacebycataleya

In this climate, it’s no surprise that his first full-length project would arrive amidst the clamour of anticipation. But why drop an album now? “God’s time is the right time,” he winks, knowingly. “I actually didn’t have plans to drop an album. I love dropping singles, but I needed a body of work to show. I’ve been in the game for this long, you know? I needed to drop something big to show how versatile I can be.”

Indeed, God’s Timing’s the Best serves a dual purpose: showcasing a disruptive artist doing exactly what he does best, and, more importantly, providing an opportunity for him to showcase the talent he believes in. Marlian Music Record, the label he founded in 2019, was set up with the same aim – to platform emerging Nigerian talent and pay his success forward. “I want to support those who believe in me. My fanbase got big, so I need to put people on now that they’re paying attention,” he asserts. “All the artists on [my] album are people I can relate to in real life. We just made the songs because we’re friends.”

Outfit: Arte, Jewellery: Lacebycataleya

These friends include Marlian Music Record signees Zinoleesky and Mohbad, as well as South African star Busiswa, with whom Marley collaborated on Coming – an explicit ode to orgasms over pulsating amapiano production. The propulsive Excuse Moi features French Afro-trap pioneer MHD, and Drink Alcohol Like it’s Water is an immediate, Pacha-ready club hit featuring Dutch rapper Chivv and multi-platinum producer Diquenza. While Marley has his share of censorious critics, it’s not hard to understand why Nigeria’s youth are so drawn to Marley’s charisma, nor his strain of feel-good universality.

Nobody knows this better than Marley. On the morning of our conversation, Marley released the video for Montego Bay, an updated Bonnie and Clyde story set in Jamaica by way of Nigeria, which depicts him on the run from the Nigerian authorities in pristine beachside settings. So far, so Marley. But there’s another facet at play that isn’t quite as black and white. The song features the line, “me have God I never panic” – a reference to his Islamic faith. Viewed some ways, an artist best known for lyrics about smoking weed and oral sex being open about his faith might sit a little awkwardly. But, to Marley, such a reading is flawed.

“They can think I’m bad or naughty, which I understand, but even a naughty guy needs God, you know?”

“With [Nigerian] culture, they don’t think you can have a big bum and be a godly person. They don’t think you can smoke weed and be a son of God. It’s a whole mindset,” he explains. “I pray, I believe in God, and I know God. During Ramadan I was fasting and it came as a shock to everybody – but I don’t understand. They think just because I like big bums and I smoke weed that I’m not a godly person. They can think I’m bad or naughty, which I understand, but even a naughty guy needs God, you know?”

It is increasingly clear that there is a generational divide dictating whether Marley is seen as a force for good or evil in his home country. “I’m just a guy living my life…” he begins, “but then again, I have so many people in the street that look up to me. People are proud of me, and believe in themselves, and believe they can, because I can.” For the first time during our interview, Marley’s voice shakes with emotion, as if he has truly stopped to think of his impact for the first time.

Outfit: WAF, Jewellery: Lacebycataleya

“Some people might not think I’m a role model, but their kids are happy now and chasing their dreams,” he continues. “But some [definitely] don’t, because their daughters be twerking to my songs!” he erupts into laughter, slipping back into his mischievous disposition. This undeniable magnetism, buoyed by a uninhibitedness and empathy, is what has struck a chord with the Marlians. They’ve even anointed him as ‘The President’ – a nickname that spread across his supporters after pandemonium-like footage surfaced of fans chasing his car while he threw money out of the windows for them.

“When I go out it feels like I’m the president of Nigeria,” he laughs again, flashing his chain – a kilo worth of gold and diamonds in the shape of the African continent. Then he adjusts his tone to a more serious register. “Nothing bad would ever happen to me among the real Marlians. The love is crazy. The love is a lot. The love is real.”

God’s Timing’s the Best is out now via My Type of Music