Good Influence: Essay on Naira Marley & Marlians
Updated: Dec 9, 2021
This article was originally published on Africa Is a Country on October 12, 2020.
Naira Marley may not be a revolutionary like, say, Fela Kuti, who engaged in formal party politics by establishing the Movement of the People and attempting to participate in the 1979 Nigerian presidential elections. Yet, Marley’s seditious music serves a political purpose, with music and a career trajectory practically displaying how young people are subverting a formal political space in Nigeria, traditionally seen as corrupt and ideologically sterile. Marley’s fans, popularly known as Marlians, contribute complex narratives to the discourse on Nigeria’s failed political and socio-economic systems.
Having suffered from the effects of radical precarity and what Alcinda Honwana—a scholar of African youth politics—has termed “waithood,” some socioeconomically disenfranchised Nigerian youth have been quick to informally elect Naira Marley as their leader. Since the implementation of structural adjustment policies in Nigeria, young people have remained victims of defective neoliberal economic policies and weak social security systems, which has resulted in a desperation for relief.
Uncertainty and inertia have stalked a large proportion of Nigeria’s urban youth, to the point where they now see an active devotion to what I call Marlianism—a neologism to describe the Marlian way of life—as a means to negotiating their waithood. Marley’s fans have willingly accepted him as the supreme leader of the Marlian vanguard because he expresses a complex sympathy for their social struggles. Marlians wish to challenge formal laws and redefine principles of economic redistribution through illegal activities, such as internet fraud. The contested moral question over this approach to the redistribution of wealth is another debate worth grappling with altogether. Rather, what I wish to underscore here is Marlians’ need to design and nurture a mode of operation that they feel is necessary for their self-preservation, having been neglected by formal social systems.
In an essay on Naira Marley recently published here, Banwo “Proficience” Olagokun claims that Marlians lack the sociopolitical consciousness to be called a social or political movement. Yet Marley often expresses a clear political message. As Marley put it himself in an interview with Yomi Adegoke, “I was born in Nigeria, where everything is not the way it’s meant to be. I’ve always been against the corruption.” These words are not empty of sociopolitical consciousness. To most Marlians, Nigeria’s political and socio-economic systems have not contributed positively to their individual development. In his 2019 song, “Bad Influence,” Marley highlights the fact that the Nigerian government has little regard for the lives of poor and marginalized youth. He sings, “But the government don’t have nothing for us […] We want school but they gave us prison; we want education but they taught us lesson.”
Marley’s fans, including Olajuwon Oluwatosin Niniola (commonly known as DonnBlu), clearly share similar ideas. Donn Blu, whose videos on social media usually depict him smoking marijuana, is primarily a comedian and musician but occasionally creates enthralling posts that echo Marlian principles, such as refusing to pay toll road fees and ignoring traffic lights while driving. It is clear that Naira Marley’s music encourages an anarchist lifestyle, which his fans freely emulate. Marlians’ decision to embark on and promote an almost Sadean lifestyle, of practicing sexual freedom and defying state regulations, is in itself a political statement and legitimate form of activism. As Laura Portwood-Stacer states in her book, Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism: “lifestyle is a way of gesturing toward a desire for different conditions, the kind that would make different kinds of subjectivities truly possible.” Marlians, therefore, represent an informal network of defiant actors pursuing an alternative social reality.
By viewing Marlians in this manner, we are able to challenge the false dichotomy between lifestyle anarchism and social anarchism suggested by Murray Bookchin, a political philosopher and eco-anarchist. In the 1970s, Bookchin saw subversive lifestyle decisions as a valid form of revolution but in 1995, he took a U-turn and criticized lifestyle anarchism as egoistic behavior that could never morph into legitimate social action required for challenging state power and capitalism. In his essay, “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm,” Bookchin presents lifestyle anarchism as a “personalistic commitment to individual autonomy,” whereas social anarchism embodies a “collectivist commitment to social freedom” and is associated with “the thinking human mind.” Yet, by drawing such a sharp and rigid distinction, Bookchin undermines the fact that social change is often fueled by individual efforts that have the ability to reverberate and engender collective social action. Moreover, Bookchin’s perception of lifestyle anarchists as irrational in comparison to social anarchists is dubious. In the case of Marlians, they do not lack the capacity to think; they can reflect on social ills and highlight what they feel should change in their society, irrespective of how (un)ethical their desires may be. While lifestyle anarchism and social anarchism may be placed on opposite ends of a spectrum, both forms of action are not mutually exclusive since anarchist lifestyles have social implications. For this reason, it is possible to recognize the socio-political consciousness of Marlians and thus validate the countercultural group as a social movement.
Indeed, the Marlian community lacks organization and structure, which Bookchin claimed are exclusive to social anarchism and thus absent from lifestyle anarchism. The Marlian message seems to be to do whatever you want to achieve self-improvement (including increasing one’s social status) and gratification, even if it is illegal. This can explain why Marlians do not have a coherent manifesto and why they do not deem it necessary to create an elaborate plan for enacting broad-based political transformation in Nigeria. However, the lack of political organization among Marlians might be reflective of their anarchist spirit. The absence of formal organization within the Marlian network can be interpreted as an inadvertent avoidance of the iron law of oligarchy which, according to Robert Michels, is the belief that regardless of a group’s attempt to emerge as democratic and horizontal, it will inevitably develop bureaucratic and hierarchical tendencies that would yield unequal outcomes. Some Marlians may be unaware of Michels’s theory, but their lack of organization can be said to represent an evasion of this iron law and an embrace of flexible and creative participation.
That said, Marlianism is complex. As Olagokun rightly points out, Marley still participates somewhat in the status quo. Like corrupt Nigerian political elites who embezzle public funds to stuff their pockets, Marlians engaging in online advance fee fraud are essentially stealing from others to become richer, even though Marlians do not see their actions in this way. So, where exactly do Marlians fit in the social pyramid? Are they some form of oppressed oppressors? In the end, I believe it is fair to say that Marlians are “partial anarchists” since they contest state power and cultural conservatism but simultaneously subscribe to bourgeois economic principles surrounding property. For Marlians, capitalism can remain unvitiated because it is useful in boosting their social status and supporting their journey to social adulthood, which is what Alcinda Honwana has highlighted as a primary desire of young Africans stuck in waithood.
Marlianism is essentially characterized by an emotive appeal. It may not represent the kind of politics that is necessary for uprooting colonial legacies in Nigeria and transforming the country into a socially progressive society but as long as Nigeria’s economic and political systems continue to be weak, Marlianism will continue to act as a source of comfort to its members. A tangible and all-encompassing solution is required to alleviate Nigeria’s multifaceted social challenges and it may not come from Marlians but that is mainly because this is not what they seek to achieve. Marlians are victims and participants of a broken system awaiting renewal. Therefore, it is unfair to criticize them for not going further to formalize their activism in order to resolve Nigeria’s weak socio-political systems, of which they are products and producers.
The group ultimately lacking the political vision and coordination required for positive social change is not Marlians, but Nigerian leaders, who for the most part are not united in a necessary effort to provide young Nigerians with substantive freedoms. There has been a glaring failure to understand that the lives of young Nigerians should be carefully invested in, and not through superficial white elephant development initiatives that wind up feeding the egos and pockets of corrupt public officials. Expecting political organization or some form of absolution from the Marlian movement, as Olagokun does, is a misplaced concern. Instead, we ought to chastise the derelict Nigerian state for stifling its people and keeping its young perpetually waiting.