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Afrobeat Diaries

Part 24 - Ghariokwu Lemi: Fela Kuti And Me

Part 24 - Ghariokwu Lemi: Fela Kuti And Me
By Published: July 9, 2011
In an illuminating interview, artist and sleeve designer Ghariokwu Lemi talks to Afrobeat Diaries about his work and friendship with Fela Kuti. The interview attests to the indelible link between Lemi's designs and Kuti's music, and to a working relationship which, Lemi reveals, broke down only once, over 1977's Sorrow Tears And Blood. The interview is a follow-up to an earlier one given by Lemi to Afrobeat Diaries, The Art Of Afrobeat.

Starting with 1974's Alagbon Close, and continuing through 1989's Beasts Of No Nation, Lemi was responsible for around half of Kuti's album sleeve designs. His art was, and remains, an integral part of Afrobeat's message. In 2011, Lemi is still Afrobeat's most sought-after sleeve designer.

Lemi gives the stories behind five sleeves, starting with Ikoyi Blindness...

"Fela composed the song 'Ikoyi Blindness' in 1975. It is about class disparity and insensitivity, using Nigerian society as its example and the Lagos metropolis as its focal point. Uptown Lagos consists of Ikoyi and Victoria Island, areas inhabited by the mega rich, the wealthy and the nouveau riche. While in downtown Lagos are decrepit areas like Mushin and Ajegunle, where the teeming masses live in poverty.

"My cover illustration portrays a puffed-up lawyer, representing the bourgeoisie, in the foreground, scurrying away in disregard of the vast, densely populated neighborhood in the background. This is my graphic way of expressing the uncharitable lack of attention given by the establishment to the needs of the wider society. The protagonist in his self-conceit rushes ahead in blind folly, preferring to head for the abyss rather than assuage the demands of the proletariat, who are in hot pursuit. In our society, we are wont to put square pegs in round holes, and that is putting it mildly. Colonial mentality is a hard yoke to break.

"The medium was oil on board, and was one of the rare instances where my cover art was done double the actual size of a record sleeve. About 95% of my covers are done the same size as the finished product. I found a willing and suitable model in my good friend Durotimi Ikujenyo, one-time rhythm pianist for Fela's Egypt 80 band. I often used real life models to capture the human expression I wanted to portray in my translation of the great musical and lyrical message of the legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

"Fela's change of last name from Ransome-Kuti to Anikulapo-Kuti was announced on this cover. I also took the opportunity to reveal my own new set of names.

"Fela wrote 'Yellow Fever' in 1975 and, like he usually did, performed it every week at the Africa Shrine and everywhere else he gave a show, until he eventually decided to make it into an album. I designed the Yellow Fever cover in 1976, having witnessed the composition of the song, and also being aware of the particular message that Fela was trying to put across to society in general, and women especially. The song is an admonition to African women who are fond of using bleaching creams to lighten their dark skin tone.

"Having listened to the song lyric several times and identified its central issues, I decided to use a model to express visually what Fela had orally illustrated in the song. Points of emphasis include the bad effect of skin lighteners on the face and bum. In this I saw an opportunity to display my talent in portraiture and figure drawing.

"My life model was a girl named Kokor, who was a member of the household in Kalakuta Republic [Kuti's live/work commune]. Actually, I remember to my chagrin that other girls were saying that they could recognize Kokor as the model. I had thought the rough patches I put on the face would have prevented Kokor being so easily recognizable.

"On this cover, I decided I was going to be straight-in-your-face with my imagery of a misinformed African beauty concept. I showed a rough and patchy face with boobs and bum in tow! Fela had taken great pains, in a no-holds-barred kind of way, to express disgust at the ignorance of the belief that skin lightening enhances African beauty. I showcased a typical offending cream in the top left corner of my cover art. This is representative of a typical bleaching cream in those days. 'Soyoyo Cream Skin Bleacher' was actually my own creation. The word 'soyoyo' is a Yoruba expression for 'bright and glow,' while 'Soyoyo' here is actually referring to white people. Then I painted in the price tag of 40 naira. This was at the high end of the product range, but true. Despite an 'exclusive' price, these creams are so harmful to beauty and health, and to the psyche of African womenfolk.

"Fela reacted very positively when I submitted this cover for his approval. In his characteristic manner, he glowingly said, 'Goddamn!' To round up, he added, 'Lemi is a mutherfucker, me-e-n!!!'

"Well, Fela Kuti, and the way he treated social issues in his music, was always controversial. And so was my Yellow Fever cover.

"The cover art for Zombie is a bold collage of guerrilla reportage photographs, using a cut-up technique. The dynamism of this idea is a fitting vehicle for what is perhaps the most provocative of Fela's classic albums. Fela wrote 'Zombie' in 1976, having been several times harassed by military personnel. The then military government in Nigeria had, amongst other objectionable things, instructed soldiers to horsewhip erring drivers on the highway, in an on-the-spot meting out of punishment. The soldiers carried out this order with a dumb obedience suggestive of real zombies in action.

"The instant Fela composed the song, everyone, including some military personnel from the nearby Albati Barracks, fell in love with the catchy rhythm, and the martial tempo, which galvanized the dancers, who wouldn't let the song end. Fela's cheeky reprise of the army bugle call got them jumping and whooping with joy at being able to mock the oppressors they feared and despised. The song became an anthem of protest for students and workers. A weapon of sorts, which they chanted under their breath anytime they felt oppressed by military personnel.

"When the time came for me to do the cover art for this landmark song, I at first found myself unable to focus on the right idea. I was overwhelmed with different ways of graphically expressing the song. The breakthrough came just in time one Kalakuta morning, when Fela was asking how the sleeve was coming along. At that moment, Tunde Kuboye, a photographer, film maker and jazz musician, and the husband of Fela's niece, Frances, walked in. He was carrying a bunch of his recent photographs, taken at the Independence Day military parade in Tafawa Balewa Square.

"I think that sometimes the universe provides material when I need something really badly for my art. Tunde walked in at the right time with those amazing photographs. As we checked them out, I couldn't hold back my excitement as I recognized the fortuitous materials I had been craving in my spirit. I just exclaimed 'Aaaahhh, this na wetin ah go use for the cover, men-n!'

"With Tunde's permission, I selected ten military images, and a few of Fela. I was set on making a graphic collage on this cover. Back in my studio, I laid a cardboard matte on my drawing board and edited Tunde's ten shots down to four.

"I remember that at that moment I was feeling like a shaman. I was trying to see how they fit, and as I put them down, the pictures just dropped into a position reminiscent of an Ifa divination—without conscious effort on my part. Quickly, not wanting to take any chances, I fitted the pictures down with masking tape, then traced their position in pencil. Spreading the Cow Gum from its red tube, I overlapped the photos and deftly cut and pasted them down. Thereafter using a hard paintbrush and thick poster color paint, I wrote in freehand the album title, Fela's name and that of the band directly over the picture, outlining the result with a Rotring pen. Finally, I added the shadows.

"The sleeve was like a solid shadow of the song and was an instant hit at Kalakuta, in Nigeria, Africa and around the world. Its immediacy led new listeners to wonder what lay on the inviting vinyl inside. For the initiated, it told the story of life under an oppressive military dictatorship—and what it takes to come through feeling that you're still somehow in command of your destiny. Like the mighty Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, fearless in admonishing the guilty ones here.

"I sometimes get into a reverie and spin back my life's time-capsule to the golden days of the 1970s: the great times I had with friends and accomplices trying out a little naughtiness and rascality, and maybe some criminality, the moment we were let out of the sight and control of our parents or guardians. And here I was in Kalakuta every day of the year, visiting with my mentor and patron and doing some reasoning—occasions when we sometimes delivered judgement on the evils being perpetrated by the establishment.

"Yes, it was the best of all times to be a soul rebel and a youth radical. [Photo shows Lemi, centre, with Mabinuori Idowu, left, and Durotimi Ikujenyo, the three founder members of the activist group the Young African Pioneers, at YAP's launch at the Shrine in 1976. 'The three musketeers,' says Lemi. 'Fela was the don dada.']

"Fela wanted me to learn to smoke. He had been nudging me for quite a while, and sometimes in a mischievous way. 'How can my artist be drinking Fanta Fanta Fanta? Lemi you have to smoke igbo [weed], men-n!!!' That was it. The master had marked his territory and the acolyte had to go through a paradigm shift.

"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...'

"As for me, I was so browbeaten and dumbfounded by Fela's display that I couldn't utter a single word. 'Check your mind, your mind is weak. Is it because they burnt my house?' he went on. 'Today we are living in this place, tomorrow we may be living in the gutters, men-n! Abi government don bribe you?' By this time, Fela was livid and poking me on the chest as he registered his annoyance. It was like getting comeuppance for doing something that I didn't know was wrong.

"I had been disgraced before everyone, with the press people in attendance. I just started crying like a child, even though I was 22. I picked up my artwork and walked out with a resolve to prove my mettle in due time. As Gbubemi Orhirhi Ejeba and I left the compound, I started driving home in my Volkswagen Camper with him, and I said, with resolve, that I didn't deserve that treatment from Fela for no good reason at all. It was like the metaphorical scales fell out of my eyes as I said in anger, 'I no dey go Fela house again lai lai!!!' I was shattered and my heart was full of sorrow, so much so that I decided it was time for me to move on with my life. This led to a break that lasted for the next eight years.

"Whenever I do interviews and am asked about my most favorite Fela Kuti song and cover art, even though I have more than a handful of favorites, I always remember my first choice is Sorrow Tears And Blood. And now you know the reason why!

"Beasts Of No Nation was Fela's own pound of flesh, with barbs in tow, aimed at his jailers in an eighteen month, undeserved incarceration emanating from a trumped-up currency trafficking charge. Smarting from his hideous experience in jail, Fela throws his punches like an enraged prize-fighter seeking revenge from a blow struck below the belt. This is socio-political commentary in a no-holds-barred attack, with the strongest language a poet can use as armoury, innuendos included. This was 1988.

"In Fela's typical style of naming songs, 'Beasts Of No Nation' came with an acronym, BONN, which is a subtle reference to the capital city of Germany and the days of Adolf Hitler's Nazism. Yes, it was pure Nazism that was going on in apartheid South Africa at that time. The bestiality of dictatorial rulers was legion, and evident across the world, and this was an opportunity for Fela to deal his blow on the global political stage. From Nigeria's dictatorial military rulers, Muhammed Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon; Zaire's maximum ruler, Mobutu Seseko; Britain's 'milk snatcher' Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher [so-called for cutting free milk for school children]; America's 'rustler' President, Ronald Reagan; to South Africa's draconian, racist Prime Minister, P.W. Botha. Nobody was going to be spared from the wrath of Nigeria's musical enfant terrible.

"The music is as powerful as it gets and beneath his knife-edge cutting sarcasm, Fela's voice shuddered with rage. It would take a serious sleeve to convey that acid tone visually. Contemplating Fela's provocative title and the range of his targets, I knew I had to depict the evils of South African apartheid, and the failures and hypocrisy of the United Nations, as so powerfully set out in his song. I made the oppressors look like rats because that's their mentality. Fela was very brave and strong and audacious to compose and record such a direct attack on both the local and global establishments. Expanding on the lyrics, I portrayed the oppressors with animal horns and fangs. This is no child's play, it is activist art, and it has got to be bold and in your face.

"Vivid details such as the slavering vampires of Thatcher, Botha, Reagan and Mobutu cram the frame with juicy satire. The quote used on the top left of the cover is from a speech by Botha, and among my beasts are Generals Buhari and Idiagbon, the men responsible for Fela's 1984 jail stint. The images on Beasts Of No Nation seethe with primal urges like greed, control, vengeance—and the spirit of popular defiance, embodied in the exuberant demonstrators waving a placard with a line from the song, 'Human Rights Is Our Property.' They shake their fists at the establishment, as represented by two rodents in robes of Church and State. The demonstrators wear Black Power sunglasses, their pink tracksuits pulsate with pastel clarity against the sombre palette of their enemies. Fela's costume is the same exuberant pink, and their gestures are echoed in his triumphant Black Power salute, as he faces them across the frame, while the offending judge cowers at his feet.

"To do this sleeve I was actually invited, or summoned, in an official letter from Fela's younger brother, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti. Beko had taken over the management of Fela's business when Fela was in jail. I learnt that it was imperative that I have the cover art ready within two weeks. I delivered right on time—and it was momentous. That sleeve was acclaimed by all, and I felt a sense of fulfilment and vindication. Once again, I was on the Kalakuta team, back on the block, solid as a rock, or so I thought.

"Then came another command to go see Beko at Kalakuta. As soon as I walked into his office, I spotted my artwork. It still hadn't gone to the printers. According to Beko, a meeting had decided that then Head of State, President Ibrahim Babangida, should be added to the rogue's gallery on the sleeve—a direct provocation that asked for trouble, very much in the style of Fela. Cleverly, I replied that unless Babangida was mentioned in the lyrics, I saw no reason to include him in my illustration. Dr. Beko pondered a moment, shook my hand and agreed. 'I think that is reasonable,' he said, looking at me as though in admiration of my political savvy, and I grinned as I walked out of his office with a light gait."

Photo Credit

Photos: Courtesy of Ghariokwu Lemi.


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