Lemi Ghariokwu, Fela and their first album cover – Peju Akande and Toni Kan
In the spirit of Felabration we publish an excerpt from Lemi Ghariokwu’s forthcoming biography, The King of Covers, detailing the circumstances surrounding his first collaboration with Afrobeat maestro, Fela Kuti, and the artistic alchemy that emerged from the process.
Lemi Ghariokwu met Fela Anikulapo Kuti, afrobeat maestro on the cusp of something monumental.
Their meeting happened just as Fela was about to make the change from socially realistic songs to songs which came out as politically charged and scathing flagellations of government and the polity.
The change was evident not just in the songs but also in Fela’s change of name on a personal as well as corporate level. During those three to four year period beginning in 1974, Fela’s music grew muscle even as he rechristened himself, evolving from Fela Ransome Kuti to Fela Anikulapo Kuti and altering the name of his band from Africa 70 to the more Africanized, Afrika 70.
Pundits, aficionados and scholars of afrobeat have made the point over the years that the collaboration between Fela’s music and Lemi’s art on Alagbon Close signified a new dynasty in album cover art.
Writing in thevinylfactory.com Emma Tuicker notes that “The relationship between Nigerian designer Lemi Ghariokwu and Fela Kuti goes beyond that of creative collaborators. Working with the musician, Ghariokwu has been responsible for almost 30 sleeves of politically and socially motivated illustrations, collages and oil paintings. In turn, he says Kuti encouraged his self-directed artistic education and gave him unparalleled liberty when it came to designing artwork – often approving sleeves with a single trademark phrase: ‘wow, goddamn’.
CNN.com’s Allyssia Alleyne and Ananda Pellerin believe that the musical and visual synergy achieved through Fela’s songs and Lemi’s album cover designs contributed in a large part to the global spread and appeal of the genre:
To Kuti and many of his contemporaries and fans, Afrobeat wasn’t just a musical style: It was a movement. Kuti’s political views were boldly reflected in his album covers, which saw satire, traditional and modern symbols, and stories from Kuti’s own life collaged together with hand-drawn illustrations and heavily stylized typography. Much like the music itself, the cover art was dynamic and impossible to ignore, and became part of Afrobeat’s global image. The most memorable of these are attributed to one man: Lemi Ghariokwu.
Allyn Gaestel writing in It’s Nice That describes the working relationship between Fela and Lemi as emotional and tempestuous: “The musician and the painter worked closely artistically, ideologically, and in their activism – for four years in Lagos before they splintered. It was not a romantic relationship, although it had all the trying tempests, emotional investment, and eventual heartache of one.”
Lusanda Luthuli writing for Daily Maverick situates the musical and visual magic the duo created within a shared ideological, artistic and political passion. “Artistically and politically, their ideas aligned almost always. And together they created a musical and visual narrative that remains a cultural imprint of passion, defiance and hope.”
The first of such songs and the album which signaled their collaboration was Alagbon Close and it was a song born out of a painful experience which presaged in many ways future incidents and travails that would culminate ultimately in his mother’s death.
Fela’s residence was known as Kalakuta Republic and it was almost like a commune. Young men and women who had no place to stay or who wanted to escape the sway of difficult or overbearing parents found refuge with Fela. There was music and food and weed and well, Fela.
They had a roof over their heads and food on the table.
But commune or not, Fela did not run a house where people simply ran wild. He had his own brand of discipline which saw people trashed, sometimes, to within inches of their lives. Fela was a libertarian in many respects but there was method to his madness.
“Fela was very rebellious, yet confident and filled with ego,” Lemi Ghariokwu says as he tries to contextualize the peculiar nature of the great musician. “He had strong principles with integrity in a way and yet he was very amoral in many ways. He was a strange character and a good observer.”
Other people who knew him say he was kind and generous and yet could be cunning and tight fisted. He was easy going and playful yet methodical and business savvy.
These were character traits that made Fela Kuti the enigma that he was.
Lemi met Fela through a journalist called Babatunde Harrison and at their first meeting the 18 year old artist gave the world famous musician a painting which made his eyes pop. Fela in appreciation paid him N120 which the young man refused and that refusal opened the floodgates of a very cordial and enviable four years long friendship during which they collaborated in a never-before-seen fashion.
“Fela loved art and had used so many artists but once I came, he settled,” Lemi explains. “And the reason was simple; we shared the same ideologies. The relationship was very cordial.”
The first collaboration was on an album that featured music forged out of pain and destruction and it all had to do with a teenager named Bukola Adedipe who had run away from home, like many other teenagers, to live with Fela at Kalakuta where she was known as Queen Alake. She was no older than 15 or 16 as Lemi recalls.
But Bukola Adedipe was no ordinary teenager. She was trouble working on two legs. After she left home, her parents spent months looking for her without success until one afternoon as her brother was passing by Kalakuta Republic, right there at Moshalashi, he caught sight of his sister dressed in the skimpy fashion of a Kalakuta queen. The young man ran all the way home to inform his parents that he had found his sister.
This is where the story gets very interesting. Bukola Adedipe turned out to be the daughter of the Chief Judge of Lagos state who was incensed to learn that his daughter was living at and cavorting with the folks at Kalakuta.
The parents wasted no time in storming the place and demanding to see their daughter. They found her alright but there was, as Fela once sang, a stalemate. The young lady refused to go home with her parents.
When they insisted Fela emerged and told them that Bukola had come to Kalakuta willingly and would leave when she was willing and ready to.
“As you can see I am not the one keeping her here,” Fela said dramatically. “If she wants to go with her parents then she is free to go with her parents.”
The parents were understandably upset at the cheek and their inability to drag her home with them so they went to make a report with the police but since the girl had proclaimed publicly that she was neither forced no coerced to come to Kalakuta and was staying there of her own freewill, they had to find another reason to get her out of Fela’s Kalakuta.
Back then smoking weed was a big issue and since everyone knew that Fela smoked weed freely and in public, the police stormed his residence ostensibly on a raid to find marijuana.
The police raid was a major undertaking with hundreds of policemen deployed. Property was destroyed, women were allegedly raped while men were brutalized. Fela was beaten so badly he received 19 stitches on his head alone.
That incident marked, in many ways, the radicalization of Fela’s music. While his jabs had been tangential in the past, the beating he received seemed to embolden and make him more vociferous and his lyrics more trenchant.
Lemi did not learn of the attack until he read about it in the papers. The attack on Kalakuta had made the front page of The Punch and by the time he found Babatunde Harrison, Fela was in detention and recuperating at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH). Lemi remembers the setting and shares in detail:
I was very eager to see Fela after I heard about the attack. So the next time I saw Mr. Babatunde Harrison heading to Odyssey’s bar I asked him how Fela was doing, he said Fela was okay and at LUTH. Fela’s older brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was the head of LUTH at that time. When Babatunde said he was going to see Fela after drinking, I asked whether it was okay to tag along and he said yes. When we got to LUTH, Fela was in a private ward with about 20 people in the room but his gregarious nature still came to the fore. Fela was talking excitedly as usual and listening to him that day I took to heart the things he said. “Ahh, It was too easy for them to come into the Kalakuta. When I leave here, I am going to electrify that fence so that the next time, it will shock them.” He also said he was going to write a song about Alagbon Close and a few weeks later, he had started working on the song. During the period, as I mentioned earlier, I had a free pass to the shrine and because I went there regularly I had the privilege of witnessing his creative process especially as he was composing the song. His modus operandi was simple; once he began composing a song, he would inform his audience at the Shrine, (which is what he called his club and performance stage) that he was working on a new song with a promise to perform it soon. Once the song was ready and he would start performing it, But Fela had a principle; he would perform his new songs to his audience at the Shrine for as long as he wished and sometimes depending on the purpose of the song. Now, once Fela records a song and it is released to the market, he won’t perform it any more at the Shrine. This used to get some of his fans angry and whenever they came to Fela to request him to play the songs, Fela would laugh then tell them to go and buy the record. With the Alagbon Close song, he wanted to address the police brutality meted out to him and so he didn’t perform it too much for too long. Back then I only attended the Sunday jump even though Fela used to have four shows weekly. Like I mentioned, Fela was at LUTH but he was essentially still in detention and so had policemen guarding his room the day we went to see him yet he was saying loudly that he would compose a song to blast the police. The song was done in two months. Anyway, as our friendship continued to grow, I knew when he went to the studio to do the recording and when the first recording was brought in, you know the first vinyl is usually without a label and is called the “White Label Sample”. This is usually the copy for review in case there are further changes to be made on the record. So, that day, I got to the studio and he asked me to come and listen to the song. There was this verse where he says “you go sing and dance for cell before dem charge you”. He was talking of illegal and extended detention and he looked at me and said “ Lemi, you wey be artist, you go paint tire before dem charge you to court”. We laughed but Fela went ahead and added that reference to artist and painting to the song. So, anytime I hear the lyrics of the song – For Alagbon/You go sing and quench for jail/You go dance and paint for cell/Before them charge you for igbo o – I remember that conversation. When he was done, he said to me: “Lemi, oya make I see wetin you fit do for this cover”. That was my first opportunity which I grabbed with my 10 fingers. I ran with it and came up with an artwork. My cover design for Alagbon Close was instructional in a way and also esoteric, metaphysical and spiritual because I believe strongly in stronger forces. This is evident from my first cover re-interpretation for Fela. You remember I had re-interpreted his Roforofo fight cover which should count as my first Fela cover even though I did it of my own volition. When I gave myself the assignment of re-creating the album illustration, I didn’t illustrate the lyrics literally on the cover. Roforofo is actually Yoruba word for mud. The song was admonishing two friends who were having a fight around the mud. I drew Fela instead, dancing on mud because all said and done the song was so beautiful and danceable. That was the vibe I was getting and that served as my inspiration on a spiritual level. I put in the graphics ‘’Fela and Africa 70, Roforoforo Fight” and I was done! Little did I know that was the role I was going to play, the role of a megaphone to amplify Fela’s thoughts visually. Alagbon Close is another typical example. The cover was also not interpreted from his lyrics. I never always illustrate my album art by interpreting song lyrics literally. I didn’t plan it, it just came, which is why I say it is destiny that our paths were meant to cross for that purpose. Fela’s career took a different turn and direction immediately Alagbon Close was released because this was the first song he released to fight the establishment directly. After this song, he started singing overtly political songs and everything became revolutionary and rebellious and Pan-African. So, in designing the cover I drew an image of a decrepit prison from which Fela had just regained his freedom. His pose was one of victory. That elevated pose. And believe you me, I cut that out from my original drawing, which I did for the Roforofo fight album cover. As I was working, I realized that the first drawing I had of Fela was of him celebrating. I wanted a victory pose because he was celebrating since the case had been thrown out of court. I pasted the cut-out from the painting on this new album cover design. If you look at the album cover you would still see edges of the cut-out. So, I took the broken hand-cuffs and added it to the decrepit police station that was on fire with a sky that was overcast. Then on the opposite side, I had Fela’s house ‘Kalakuta Republic. I put a victory sign on it and I sat the building on a rocky foundation. I put in a view of the ocean because there’s water around the Alagbon Close area in Ikoyi. I also added a police patrol boat which was supposed to be guarding the prison but which had been overturned by a whale. The whale was representative of the forces of nature which had capsized the police patrol boat, something that was not in the lyrics at all. When I was done, I took it to Fela. When Fela saw it, he didn’t blink, he just said ‘Gaddem it!’ The same thing he said when he first saw my portrait. The he wrote out a cheque, N120. This time, I collected cheque. That cheque helped me as a foundation for valuing my work. I would normally charge N30 which wasn’t small because those days monthly rent for a small apartment was N4. A school Cert holder earned N23 a month while a brand new Volkwagen beetle car was N965. So N30 was not small at all.
From that first album design for Alagbon Close, Lemi would go ahead to design a total of 26 albums for Fela Kuti over a four year period in the first instance before they had a falling out. They reconnected, patched up things subsequently and worked together till Fela’s penultimate final self-sponsored album release in 1993. That divine collaboration had lasted nineteen years within three decades.
From 1974 to date, the iconic master artist has designed over 2,000 album covers for possibly hundred musicians across the globe which should secure him a place of pride in the Guinness Book of World Records. He has exhibited across the world and his work, “Anoda Sistem”, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA). He has a dual lifetime membership of the museum.
Not bad for a boy whose first canvas was the bare earth and whose first brush was a broomstick.
Excerpted from Lemi Ghariokwu’s forthcoming biography-The king of Covers by Peju Akande and Toni Kan due out 2022 from Mbari Kola.