It was the first warm and sunny day of the year in London when I called up Naira Marley, which seemed fitting, given the bright, summer-ready songs he's known for. Naira moved from Lagos to Peckham at the age of 11 and makes music that embodies both of those homes. He's regarded by many as the pioneer of U.K. afrobeats (or afroswing, afrowave, afrowhatever…), a blend of afrobeats, road rap, grime, dancehall, and French rap. The sound is a true product of the diaspora and the global cross-pollination of influences that seems to make up so much of the best music at the moment.
Naira first emerged on the U.K. scene with "Marry Juana" in 2014, a lilting summertime bop using clever wordplay to extoll the virtues of weed. Since then, he’s put out a steady stream of tunes straddling both London and Lagos. His latest single, the delightfully joyous "Issa Goal," has spawned thousands of videos of fans doing the shaku shaku. The track features guest verses from Nigerian stars Kesh and Olamide, and is something of an official-unofficial anthem for Nigeria's soccer team as it prepares to compete in this summer's World Cup. Its video, debuting today on The FADER, is a beautiful, green-and-white celebration in the metropolis of Lagos.
When I spoke with Naira — over a shaky WhatsApp line — we discussed his beginnings in music and Nigeria’s chances in the World Cup. Watch the Crack Stevens-directed video below. Go Super Eagles 🇳🇬🇳🇬🇳🇬!
Your Instagram feed was videos of people dancing to “Issa Goal” before the video was even out. How does that feel?
It’s crazy. I've even started deleting some of them, there's too many. I can't even post them all.
What's your songwriting process?
I just hear the beat and go from there. I have to hear the beat first and then work on the song.
What was your thought process when you heard the beat for “Issa Goal”?
There was a sound in it that just reminded me of football and the World Cup. Da-da-ding, da-da-ding...it just made me think of football and goals so that's how “Issa Goal” came up.
Are you excited for the World Cup?
I’m excited that Nigeria is even in the World Cup but I'm more scared for them because they might not get far.
I'm Iranian so I understand this feeling. We don't usually get very far, but it’s good while it lasts.
Oh wow, yeah. I need Nigeria to go far because I've dedicated something to them so I actually need them to get far.
Is “Issa Goal” dedicated to the Nigerian football team?
Is it their official song?
I know they've been dancing to it, but I don't know how you make something official. It's unofficially the official song.
You should send it to FIFA and make it the official song of the World Cup.
Oh, I wish!
What is your biggest goal?
To just keep going really. Just keep going, developing.
You've been called the pioneer of U.K. afrobeats.
This song is definitely afrobeats. It's not afroswing or fusion or anything. It's pure. You can still move it to in [the U.K.] as well, but it's definitely afrobeats.
What’s the difference between those genres?
U.K. afrobeats doesn't really have the dancing beat, it just has the weight. It's just something catchy but not really something you can dance to in the same way, or something that is really stressful to make. Traditional afrobeats has got the beats, it's got the sound because the people that make it actually speak the language properly so it just sounds pure. There's no English.
How did you start making music?
I just took my mate to the studio one time and I ended up jumping on one song I really liked and it just got out of hand! People kept asking me to make more and now here I am.
So it was all a big accident?
Yeah. I made one song [“Marry Juana”] and it blew up and everyone started jumping on the wave of afro-whatever you call it. I didn't even know I was setting a trend at that time, but everyone jumped on it and the song blew up and that's how I got into music.
What would you do be doing now if you hadn't got into music?
I would've been in the streets, making money.
What's next for you?
I've got so much songs I don't even know. I haven't even decided yet. I think I'm gonna keep [releasing] singles...I might give them an EP soon.