A Lemi Ghariokwu artwork is easily recognizable, brimming with stimuli in densely crowded settings evocative of a Where’s Wally? spread. Raised in Lagos, the 66-year-old has painted over 2,000 album covers for major and independent artists in Nigeria and beyond, but his most famous were for Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, whose warrior spirit railed against the country’s military regime and aligned with Ghariokwu in an eventful four-year partnership. Kuti’s warrior spirit railed against the country’s military regime and aligned with Ghariokwu in an eventful four-year
Ghariokwu would use a broomstick to sketch fancy vehicles that passed by on Lagos’s unpaved sand streets when he was five years old. He didn’t start working as an artist until he was 17, when he came across a record made by Roger Dean, the British artist best known for his work with the progressive rock band Yes. “Seeing him get magazine interviews as a result of his work was a huge inspiration,” he adds.
Sonny Okosun, a musician who was asked for a TV interview, was the catalyst for his prolific production. “I went along and drew a sketch of the host, and [the studio] began to invite me to draw on live television.” I always made sure I was done before the conclusion of the performance so the audience could see [the final result].”
At the age of 18, he had the chance to meet Kuti when local journalist Babatunde Harrison was captivated by a Bruce Lee homage painting he had created for his neighborhood bar. “I discovered Babatunde was interested in purchasing it for 120 naira [approximately £800 today].”
“I knew that was my golden ticket into Fela’s world,” Ghariokwu recalls, his face lit up with delight. Harrison urged him to create a picture of Kuti in order to determine whether or not he was worthy of seeing the guy himself. To Harrison’s surprise, Lemi was waiting outside the pub the following day with a framed and finished picture. He quickly booked a cab to Kuti’s communal area, the Kalakuta Republic.
Kuti declared the Republic an autonomous state, much to the chagrin of the Nigerian military, and it housed Kuti’s family and an in-house band, as well as a carnival of other people. “Fela was an excellent human resources manager at Kalakuta,” Ghariokwu says. “He provided occupations for everyone there: there were dancers, singers, cooks, and DJs among the females.
He had one or two ‘rollers’ who were in charge of rolling up joints at all times. Fela even had his own court in the home, and if two Republic members got into a fight, he would handle the court session personally.”
“It’s surreal, like a rockstar lifestyle,” Ghariokwu says of the location. In Kalakuta, DJs played music 24 hours a day, seven days a week — you’d wake up to James Brown’s Sex Machine blasting from gigantic speakers.”
Ghariokwu recalls the two immediately bonding over spiritual teachings from British-born Tibetan monk Tuesday Lobsang Rampa and black empowerment from Malcolm X. “Right away, there was a synergy between us,” he explains. “It was only a matter of time before the relationship blossomed.”
Ghariokwu spent four years traveling to Kalakuta every day to see Kuti as he composed and mastered new songs. Kuti treated him as if he were a closest friend, and from this vantage point, Ghariokwu was able to respond to Kuti’s thoughts with spontaneous visual replies. “I’m embellishing his point of view and adding my perspective,” he says. “I’m visualizing the music’s soul.”
Kuti demonstrated this when he was brutalized by the police in 1974 and felt compelled to write about it. He winces as he says, “I met him at the hospital, and he had a broken skull that required 17 stitches.” “However, he said that he intended to compose a song that was explicitly critical of the cops.
That’s when he decided to take on the role of directly opposing the establishment.” That song would go on to become Alagbon Close, the title tune of a Kuti album using Ghariokwu’s artwork for the first time.
The connection between Lemi and Fela would be tainted by tensions between Kalakuta and the Nigerian military. The Republic was burnt down by a thousand troops in reprisal after Kuti released the scathing political album Zombie in 1976. “I was 22,” Ghariokwu said, perplexed. It was terrifying.”
After a disagreement over the cover art for 1977’s Sorrow Tears and Blood, his relationship with Kuti deteriorated. “I showed him the artwork, and he [glared] and complained that his burning Republic wasn’t included. Why would I depict a burning home if it happened a year ago? ‘Check your mind, your mind is weak,’ he prodded my chest. “I was so heartbroken that I drove away crying,” he remembers.
Despite their breakup, Ghariokwu’s work reverberated across black society in the decades that followed. He worked for Polygram and Kennis Music for 11 years each, the latter a Nigerian label that before today’s Afrobeats development.
Meanwhile, his influence impacted socially aware US hip-hop, from the Pan-African artwork that adorn A Tribe Called Quest’s albums to De La Soul’s handwritten titles. Though Ghariokwu’s tenure with Kuti came to an end when he was just 22, his work has endured. He offers a straightforward explanation: “I reflected my generation.”
Thanks to Nathan Evans at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.