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Afrobeat Diaries

Part 24 - Ghariokwu Lemi: Fela Kuti And Me

By Published: July 9, 2011
"It was Wednesday, June 16, 1976, early evening, and Fela had shared a little goro [a weed-infused drink] with me. I was high as a kite and feeling light as a feather, and walked gingerly in the company of Fela, his friends and aides, to his Range Rover. Off we drove to Ikate, Surulere, in Lagos, to visit Fela's immediate family: his first wife, Remi, and three children, Yeni, Femi and Sola. They lived away from all the drama at Kalakuta. As we sat in the family living room exchanging banter, I was in a mental struggle to stay focused and keep my concentration. I remember asking questions like, 'Can I can go ease myself in the bathroom and not flounder?' Fela was as patient as a nurse in explaining that being high was different from drunkenness, that I should just focus on being creative with my thoughts.

"Then, at 9pm on television, came news from South Africa that shocked the world. Defenseless primary school students, protesting against the enforced use of the Afrikaans language, had been shot dead by police in Soweto. We all jumped up from our seats in shock at such beast-like brutality. We discussed this all night long and all week thereafter. I must point out that, even with all this, Fela still had time to show concern for my welfare, for he eventually elected to drive me home himself. He carefully instructed me, as I alighted from his car to the cheers of neighbors: 'Lemi, just go inside, say goodnight to your mum and dad and go straight to bed. Ask no silly questions, men-n!!!'

"A few weeks later, Fela rehearsed a new composition, inspired by a brutality-catalog consisting of his own experiences, clashes between the police and university students, and other confrontations between the army and communities around Nigeria. He wove into this the growing repression by the racist police in apartheid South Africa. All this acted as material for a magnificent new song titled 'Sorrow Tears And Blood,' STB, on the Afrobeat menu.

"By the time the song was eventually recorded and ready for release in 1978, I had listened to Fela perform it at the Africa Shrine and other venues scores of times. My mind was set on the approach to take on my cover art. Having been privy to the rationale behind the message, I thought I was home free with my concept, like always. Fela was ghoulish in his description of a typical scenario of a police or military raid and its effect. He was caustic in his admonition of a people who were too afraid to stand up for freedom and justice.

"It had been two years since Fela composed 'Sorrow Tears And Blood,' and a lot of water had passed under the bridge. Kalakuta Republic had been sacked by one thousand soldiers in a very horrendous raid in broad daylight. I put a bold, stoical and fearless Fela image on my canvas. My painting showed a crowd running away from an unseen cause; an empty road with a single military boot lost in the melee; a vulture waiting for a meal; soldiers meting out jungle justice; a screaming woman lost to fear.

"I thought I had nailed this cover for good, but Fela had the 'unknown soldier' all over his mind [an official government inquiry had ludicrously declared that an unauthorized 'unknown soldier' had set fire to Kalakuta, rather than a squad of soldiers acting on direct orders]. Fela and I also had different perspectives about some personal issues, relating to modus operandi. It was not my lucky day when I presented the cover art for Sorrow Tears And Blood to Fela for approval. The whole Kalakuta clan had moved in with J. K. Brimah, Fela's bosom friend and manager. They had just been evicted from their temporary abode in Crossroads Guest House, where they had moved after the burning of Kalakuta. Fela was actually presiding over a press conference when I walked in with my painting. Journalists were surprised to finally meet me and realise I was so young. They all showed interest and offered to do an interview with me after they were done with Fela.

"To tell you that, straight from the first glance, Fela reacted very negatively, would be a big understatement. He eventually insisted that I do another piece detailing the rape, plunder and arson by unknown soldiers at Kalakuta on February 18, 1977. He was quite aggressive as he questioned my allegiance and loyalty. 'Lemi, didn't you see the burning of my house, how they raped my girls and put bottles in their private parts?' He continued his admonishment, 'Why are these people running, what is chasing after them?' He was referring to the running people in my illustration. Just then, Gbubemi Orhirhi Ejeba, a member of YAP, and a colleague who had accompanied me, took up my defense, explaining that my illustration was expressing the lyric, 'My people dey fear too much, we dey fear for the thing we no see...'

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