In Burna Boy’s continent and Rema’s year, Naira Marley continues to swerve left. His post-jail song, ‘Soapy’, plus its video, which crossed the hard one million YouTube views milestone barely a week after its release, is a statement of the artiste’s zeitgeist. Naira Marley’s Soapy pushes the boundary of acceptable content further along, entering the taboo topic of masturbation into the narrow catalogue of musical subject matters. But while it is the title, also the crux of the chorus, which has earned him outrage, the song is also a short — if convoluted — expository on prison life. He represents prison as a collection of people with as much individual diversity as a salad — “Inside life, l’oó ti rí Five Alive / Inside life, l’oó ti rí Deeper Life”.
The idea for Soapy may be rooted in Naira Marley’s experience of detention, the language leads back to social media. Which is why one might be forced to wonder why the backlash is loudest from that corner. The soap metaphor has stuck around the internet for a while. In quarters where the fine art of self-satisfaction is the discourse, the slinky material is sooner than later summoned to serve two polar purposes: convey meaning to the initiate and alienate the outsider. If the recent reaction to Naira Marley’s musicalization of the phenomenon reveals anything, it is that there are more initiates than outsiders.
Naira Marley does not come across as a sexual singer. His handling of lewd materials is brash; he doesn’t care for the subtlety which gives songs about sex and desire their allure. It is in fact a little hard if you are not already used to the soap metaphor, to understand what Soapy preaches without encountering the dance. But the fusion of music, dance and the body is the ultimate medium of sexual expression. You can figure out a lot about a person’s sexuality if you pay attention to how they use their body relative to the music on a dance floor. Naira Marley knows this. He intimated his fans with the Soapy dance by posting short clips on social media even before the official audiovisual arrived. And when it did, it was garbed in prison colors. Naira Marley’s contribution to the Nigerian prison narrative is important. Until the artiste weighed in on it — “Kiríkirì ń jó soapy … Ìkòyí prison ń jó soapy … Nínú cell EFCC wón ń jó soapy” — the sex lives of Nigerian prisoners was hardly on the mind of the outside world. This may be the kind of thing Naira Marley dines out on, it would have earned many of the other artistes at work today a ‘cancel’.
The Soapy dance borrows from the male body’s most private moment, imitating the rituals of self-pleasure: a hand curled in front of the groin, sliding up and down furiously, legs shuffling around. The appeal, one suspects, is the freakiness. In a society like ours, where pretentious morality is ranked way over individual quirkiness, a dance that breaks us into a collective disorder is indeed tempting. But the Soapy dance lacks the elegance of the Zanku which it is being taunted to replace. It would vanish in a moment, pushed out the window like the memory of masturbation, and we’ll return to hopping on dance floors.
The music video starts out with mugshots, spends its entire runtime in confinement (as opposed to Naira Marley’s favoured set, the streets) and — here’s the most intriguing detail — reenacts the exact image that blew up the internet after his arrest by the EFCC: of his friends and himself, five men in all, posing together for the authorities’ camera. A reclaiming of his moment of ridicule, perhaps; or a mockery of the authorities and the legion of Nigerians who celebrated his arrest. More so if you consider that the event has gone on to become a focal point in his career. Permit me to open a parenthesis here. Music fans agree that they already have an activist in the problematic Burna Boy. His position in the music industry is not open for contention, at least not till the end of the current calendar. But an addendum is not a bad idea, right? Especially if he is a provocateur. Okay, seal the parenthesis shut and let’s rewind to the beginning of the sequence. ✚
Adeosun is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry with work in Arts and Africa, Brittle Paper, Litro UK, catapult, and Transition magazine.