Defending Naira Marley to Elitists

by Carl Terver

In the lockdown year, I had an interesting conversation on pop culture. This began when someone’s reaction to a discussion on Naira Marley reminded me of the theories taught in literature class, which I recall, sitting in those lecture halls in university, I thought of as serious time-wasters because of their drilling impossibility to comprehend, irrelevant outside the classroom, only fodder for academic discourses. The theory : Cultural Criticism, a Siamese twin of New Historicism. It explains that what often tends to be recognised as true Art is mostly determined by the elite class. Our subject of conversation was Naira Marley’s music, which my discussant found below himself to engage in debate. In his words, it was to him like discussing Fifty Shades of Grey.

He’d shared on Facebook a screenshot of a tweet by NM which read: “Retweet if u don’t believe in CoronaVirus,” and captioned it with the words: “Where are those of you who wrote shitty essays about this guy’s music.” (sic).

I’d written some essays on Naira Marley, the most popular being “Has Naira Marley Defeated the Hypocrisy?,” which I was accused by another critic of being a voyeuristic middle-class intellectual who glorifies sex. So I commented on this person’s post with a hands-up emoji, to indicate: Me. (I’m here, among those who wrote the shitty essays about Naira Marley’s music, yes.) In my comment, I added in defence of NM, that 1. his lyrical content is above the average Nigerian singer, and 2. that his social commentaries were scandalous for increased notoriety. But I was accused of intellectualising the singer. A particular commenter put it this way: “intellectualising crap.” The clapbacks underscored an obvious elitism in their responses. As the comments section gained traffic, the guy, a writer, who made the Facebook post, used the word “empty” frequently to judge Naira Marley’s songs.

By judging Naira Marley’s songs beneath himself and calling it empty, he’d sided, even if unintentionally, to status in defining art. (Permit me to quote something long. Once, on Facebook, when I wrote a loosely-critical post about monotonous imagery in emerging Nigerian poets, it was called a rant because I didn’t quote any scholar. So here goes, with MLA.) According to Lois Tyson, in her book Critical Theory Today:

…cultural criticism . . . argues that working-class culture has been misunderstood and undervalued. The dominant class dictates what forms of art are to be considered “high” (superior) culture, such as the ballet, the opera, and the other “fine” arts. Forms of popular culture, on the other hand—such as television situation comedies, popular music, and pulp fiction—have been relegated to the status of “low” (inferior) culture. For cultural critics, however, there is no meaningful distinction between “high” and “low” forms of culture. For all cultural productions can be analyzed to reveal the cultural work they perform—that is, the ways in which they shape our experience by transmitting or transforming ideologies—which means, of course, the role of cultural productions in the circulation of power (296).

When we judge art below our aesthetic tolerance, without critical evaluation but with the sentiment to demean it, we commit classism. This agrees to Lois Tyson’s summation where she highlights “the role of cultural productions in the circulation of power” above. When the production and apparatus of appreciating art is the enclave of the elites-only, it allows this class to maintain its hold on defining what art is, reinforcing its own image of superiority and political importance. Popular art, regarded for the prole or unintelligent, uncultured lower-class, is negated or demeaned, considered low, or shitty and empty, as my NM basher judged. But the function such low art performs for the subaltern class, so-to-speak, cannot be fulfilled by high art. This is why the average Nigerian audience grooves to Small Doctor and Phyno but is apathetic to Adele and even our Asa. (As a consequence, English language rap in Nigeria suffers because of its elite status.)

Sontag was against the classification of high and low art. In The Complete Rolling Stone interview  ( interviewed by Jonathan Croft ), she expressed this in a comment on rock and roll: “I’m certainly not going to give up on rock and roll. I’m not going to say that because kids are walking around in their vampire makeup or wearing swastikas therefore this music is no good, which is the square, conservative judgment that’s so much in the ascendant now.”

The snarky comment of my NM basher, that Naira Marley’s music is beneath him, comes to mind here. The condescension on low art, so-called, pushes to nonexistence its relevance and negates the existence of the humans it speaks to. Sontag argued against this blind spot by the extollers of high art: “[M]ost people who make those judgments, of course, know nothing about the music, aren’t attracted to it, and have never been moved viscerally or sensually or sexually by it.”

Passenger’s view in a keke: posters of Naira Marley among other musicians. SOURCE: Twitter

The intolerant reaction of high art lovers to Naira Marley is activated by a class consciousness to dissociate the self from what is perceived as an Other, low in value, and the fear of being tainted by it. The irony, however, is the ability to pass judgement from such distance without partaking in an unaffected experience of the artwork, enough to call it “empty.”

We had no closure on Naira Marley’s emptiness, as the guy said of the singer, when I asked him to point a Naira Marley song and its emptiness. He replied with more accusations. Even when I presented the first verse of NM’s “Soapy” and asked for the emptiness in it. At which point, he declared his distrust of my criticism. (A. O. Scott is consoling here: “Every critic grows accustomed to dealing with scepticism and suspicion and, sometimes, outright contempt.”) How could more discussions of NM’s music not sound like intellectualising if I continued my art of persuasion to that writer? Below is a part (translated) of the first verse of Naira Marley’s hit song “Soapy”:

O t’ese ’le bo o, yahoo ni babalawo
(He took a metaphysical approach, the herbalist is also a cyber fraudster)
Ole l’everybody, eni ile mo ba ni bára wo
(Everybody is a thief, only the one caught is a criminal)
O fe se’ka fun mi, mi o l’ogun mo ni kurani
(They want to harm me, but I am not fortified, I only have the Qur’an)
Mo de n sadura mi, bi n ṣe n s’adura mi Allah n gbadura mi
(I say my prayers and I say them, Allah answers them)

The songwriting, introspective and true to events in the singer’s life, hardly presents what is empty. Rather, we see story, the coherent progression of the song’s sense and, even, its proximity to oral poetry. (The songwriting quality here isn’t an exception but NM’s signature.) But what we face—to understand the intolerance of his non-admirers—is the identity and symbol NM’s music carries. These are its perceived lowbrow-ness, its agbero element, street music-ness (read: trash), and its Afrobeats gyration percussion already accused for its ability to inspire just dance (connotation: empty); thus, its emptiness and nonsense value—which displaces and assaults our bourgeois aesthetic sensibilities.

This class struggle is mild at its surface but beastly underneath. For a long time, the perennial exposure to American pop culture made it difficult for us to embrace and appreciate our cultural production. (We still do today, as we often make comparison with American pop to validate ours.) It has been the reason why many of us, to pass as woke and being culturally superior, brag about not watching Nollywood or listening to Nigerian music. It is, of course, a result of a class consciousness of entrenched Eurocentrism and American imperialism, to perceive our indigenous cultural product as unworthy of celebration, wherefore we mimic foreignness to it and only perceive its exotic value. This allocates power to a cultural base that is more accepted—in this case, white culture, and fail to see the scope in how this perception covertly shapes and reinforces ideas of cultural and ethnocentric hegemony. Thankfully, this story has reversed greatly, as our music, with the appreciation of Afrobeats, beats back the cultural denialism we suffered for a long time. 

I return to Naira Marley’s tweet: “Retweet if u don’t believe in CoronaVirus.” In the early days of the artiste’s notorious tweets in 2019, we also saw, “Having a big ass is better than having a master’s degree.” Naira Marley may mean what he says—which I can hardly fault; he understands his country quite well. But to interpret his words literally is to miss the cunning ingenuity of his literature, which is an oblique approach in criticising society. There are many ways to interpret his coronavirus tweet, and it may very well sound like intellectualising crap. 1. It expressed his distrust for the Nigerian government in manipulating the pandemic for its selfish gains. 2. He joined a large number of Africans whose denialism can’t be dismissed, simply, as a result of their ignorance of the nature of pathogens. But whose logic protested what they perceived—at the time—as an intrusive disease that didn’t originate from their continent, but capable to render them powerless and at the mercy of white saviours.

Critics aren’t intellectualising Naira Marley but are engaging in a cultural discourse in the intersections of culture and society. Anyone could have tweeted NM’s words and it wouldn’t have stirred a fly. But the singer wielded a different currency which elevated his words to a dialectic. A currency that asides making good music which the bourgeois can’t tolerate, made him a subject of a slew of essays and profiles between 2019 and 2021, including “Inside Life with Naira Marley” in TheNative Mag, Adams Adeosun’s “Unpacking Naira Marley’s Soapy,” Dami Ajayi’s “Naira Marley, Marlians and his aural pornography,” and an academic paper, Are there Marlians in the Buhari government? Popular music and personality cult in Nigeria in Taylor & Francis, among many.

This breadth of criticism on Naira Marley didn’t happen because the writers were idle. It shows that Naira Marley, or his music, is not empty nor shitty, but worth the attention of writers and critics, intelligent people with the agency to appreciate even so-called highbrow music. But even more, the essays illuminate the concerns of the theory of Cultural Criticism and corrects, in Lois Tyson’s words, the undervaluing of working class culture, as they celebrate NM’s works which would have rather been undermined by the dominant elite class—“Where are those of you who wrote shitty essays about this guy’s music[?]”—who dictate what art is admirable and which is not.◙

Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.