Legendary and trailblazing Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti made waves for his nonconformity, ideals and radical character. Known as the pioneer of Afrobeat, he enjoyed stunning popularity through his music. He was also a human rights activist and Pan-Africanist who faced many issues with Nigerian politicians and law due to the fact that he was confident in speaking his mind either through music or random conversations.
Kuti was a creative genius. He made sure that his social and political views were reflected in his album covers, which criticized political oppression, corruption, police brutality, and so on. One couldn’t just ignore his album covers, just like his music.
Lemi Ghariokwu is behind most of these unforgettable album covers. The Nigerian designer created graphics for many of the singer’s hits, including “Zombie”, “No Bread” and “Beast of No Nation”.
“I designed 26 covers while he was alive and created a movement of the art and the music,” Ghariokwu, now in his mid-60s, told CNN.
The artist was just five years old when he started drawing about cars that drove by with a broomstick on the sand streets of Lagos. His father wanted him to become an engineer but he wanted to pursue arts. And so right after his primary school education, he started taking art seriously after being inspired by the works of British artist Roger Dean.
Ghariokwu then started a friendship with musician Sonny Okosun. One day, when Okosun was invited for a TV interview, Ghariokwu went with him and made a sketch of the presenter. The studio soon started inviting him to draw on live TV. “I always made sure I was finished by the time the show ended so the public could see [the finished product],” Ghariokwu told the Guardian.
At 18, Ghariokwu finally met Kuti thanks to journalist Babatunde Harrison who was fascinated by a Bruce Lee painting Ghariokwu made for his local bar. Before taking him to meet Kuti, Harrison asked Ghariokwu to draw a portrait of Kuti to see if he deserved to see the Afrobeat legend. Ghariokwu created the portrait, attracting Harrison and Kuti’s attention when he finally got to meet the legendary musician at his communal compound, known as the Kalakuta Republic.
The communal compound housed his family, band members, recording studio, and others. Ghariokwu and Kuti bonded as soon as they met. They became like family thanks to their stance on social issues and their ideas about spiritualism and Black empowerment. Ghariokwu was at the time already inspired by the Black Panthers in the U.S. describing them as heroes. He also loved civil rights activists and singers like Miriam Makeba.
Kuti advised the young artist to buy books and read more about politics, history, spirituality and art instead of going to the university. And Ghariokwu did just that. “His key point was… if you go through that miseducation system, you will lose your originality and your identity,” Ghariokwu told CNN.
For four years, Ghariokwu traveled to Kalakuta observing Kuti as he worked on new music. He will then work to visualize the soul of his music. In November 1974, some police officers stormed Kuti’s Kalakuta compound and arrested him. The police raided his home on the pretext of searching for a young woman who it was falsely alleged Kuti had abducted. Kuti was reportedly badly beaten by the officers.
“I met him at the hospital, and he had a broken skull that needed 17 stitches,” Ghariokwu recalled. “But he said he wanted to write a song directly attacking the police. That was the moment he chose that role of fighting the establishment directly.”
That song attacking the police would become Alagbon Close, the title track of a Kuti album that first featured Ghariokwu’s artwork. “This was my first ever chance,” Ghariokwu said to VF. “I came up with my cover art and it’s instructional in the sense that it signalled what I was going to do eventually on his covers. I actually illustrated it not directly relating to the lyrics – my cover art was totally abstract.”
“It was the first time in Nigeria that when the album was released they rave reviewed the music, and they also reviewed the album cover art too,” he added. “That was the beginning of the dynasty of album cover art.”
During this period, Kuti became a fierce critic of Nigeria’s military dictators such that right after the release of his political album Zombie in 1976, some 1,000 soldiers burned down his Kalakuta Republic home. “I was 22. It was scary shit,” Ghariokwu recounted, adding that the incident started affecting the friendship he had with the legendary singer.
What made matters worse was an argument he had with Kuti over the cover art for 1977’s Sorrow Tears and Blood. “I showed him the artwork, and he [glanced] and complained that I didn’t include his burning Republic. Why should I draw the burning house when it was a year ago? He poked my chest: ‘check your mind, your mind is weak.’ I drove away crying, I was so heartbroken,” Ghariokwu recalled in his interview with the Guardian.
Even though Ghariokwu stopped working with Kuti after just four years, his art and fame did not die. He went on to create thousands of covers for other artists, and even invented his own creative movement called Afro Art Beat. He has since designed more than 2,000 album covers and has exhibited in Lagos, New York and London.
“I work with revolutionaries. I adore their warrior spirits. All my heroes are warrior spirits,” he told CNN. “I’m not a warrior spirit. I’m an evolutionary… As an evolutionary I believe we need to package things properly, work on them. Now, with time, it will grow.”