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Part 23 - Ghariokwu Lemi: The Art of Afrobeat

Part 23 - Ghariokwu Lemi: The Art of Afrobeat
Chris May By

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Ghariokwu Lemi—"born, bred and buttered" in Lagos, Nigeria, where he continues to live—is an artist and graphic designer who created 26 of Fela Kuti's album covers, including many of his most powerful ones. Since his Kuti debut, for 1974's Alagbon Close, Lemi's art has been an integral part of Afrobeat's Pan African message, working hand in hand with the music to identify injustice, educate, galvanize protest and bring about change.

Among Lemi's other Africa 70, Afrika 70 and Egypt 80 covers are those for Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana (1975), Ikoyi Blindness (1976), Kalakuta Show (1976), Yellow Fever (1976), Upside Down (1976), J.J.D. Johnny Just Drop (1977), Zombie (1977), Fear Not For Man (1977), Sorrow Tears And Blood (1977) and Beasts Of No Nation (1989).

Alongside his design work, Lemi was in 1976 a founder member of the Young African Pioneers (YAP), who took Afrobeat's political message into the protest and publishing worlds. Wholly in sympathy with Kuti's philosophy, but always his own man, Lemi's work has been enriched by his experiences as an activist, and this adds to its power.

Looking at least a decade younger than his 55 years, Lemi continues to be a vital part of Afrobeat, and is the cover designer of choice for artists in Nigeria and overseas. Among the hundreds of covers he has designed, his recent work includes designs for Brooklyn's Antibalas and Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble groups, and for Seun Anikulapo Kuti's From Africa With Fury: Rise (Knitting Factory, 2011). The success of the Broadway musical FELA! in 2010/11 has given a welcome boost to Lemi's career, with exhibitions being planned on several continents.

All About Jazz: Can you remember the first piece of Fela's music you heard?

Ghariokwu Lemi: I'm not completely sure which song it was. I first heard Fela while I was in secondary school and probably it was his first major hit, "Jeun K'oku (Chop and Quench)," so that would have been around 1970. I'm not certain really; it could have been "Oni Dodo." If it was "Jeun K'oku," it would have been at a party.

AAJ: What attracted you to Fela's music?

GL: If it was "Jeun K'oku" I heard first, it must have been the popularity; it was being played everywhere. Later on, I started recognizing the boldness of Fela's character and delivery.

AAJ: When did you first encounter him?

GL: I met Fela in 1974, when I was 18 and raring to go, in a circumstance I attribute to predestination, because I strongly believe in destiny. The acolyte met the master, and, as they say in metaphysics, when the student is ready, the teacher is always available. I know there was a reason and a rhyme to our meeting and the fact that our destinies had to cross at that time for this project—the mission towards Africa's mental liberation—which is the road which I've been traveling throughout my life.

AAJ: Did Fela suggest you design an album cover, or did you suggest it to him?

GL: Fela asked me to design an album cover after I had passed my initial test, which was doing a portrait under the prompting of Babatunde Harrison, who was then entertainment writer for The Punch newspaper in Lagos. It was Alagbon Close, in 1974. It was the beginning of a dynasty of covers that carried the message of the music. In total I created 26 of Fela's album covers, over a period spanning three decades, from the mid 1970s to the early 1990s.

AAJ: Did Fela give you complete creative freedom? Did he ever ask you to change a design?

GL: Fela gave me complete creative freedom to express myself in whatever way or form I deemed fit on the album covers. I was so free that I believe today that I'm still the only cover artist who has had the privilege of putting his photograph, and also his own comments, on the back of a record sleeve [Lemi's commentaries became features of his Afrika 70 covers]. Only once did Fela ask me to change a design. The album was J.J.D. Johnny Just Drop, which came out in 1977. I did as he asked, but I also retained my original design [pictured above, showing a young Afro-coiffed, Cuban-heeled "been-to" falling out of a plane] by making the sleeve a double jacket, even though it was a single record in the album.

I used my original concept for the back cover and Fela's idea for the front cover [a top-hatted, morning-suited "been-to" landing in a Lagos street to the bemusement of passers-by]. I felt we were both right, from our individual perspectives. Fela wanted to direct his attack on the bourgeoisie, and I thought to face the youths with my own critique of colonial mentality. I surreptitiously turned the sleeve into a double sleeve to accommodate both our views. Being given such a free hand by Fela helped me when I approached the then managing director of Decca West Africa, John Boot, with my double jacket idea. Sleeves were printed by Robert Stace printers in England in those days, and Mr Boot took artworks to England and returned with a beautiful package which he promptly showed to me.

I took the first copy to show Fela. As I approached Fela's presence, I said to him from a safe distance, "Fela, see JJD sleeve." I showed him the front cover and said, "This is your own," and, in a split second, turned the album round to show the back cover image, which was the one he had asked to be changed, and said, "This is mine." Fela looked at me, gave a sheepish smile, and said, "Lemi, you hit me below the belt!." Without further ado, I dashed off from the room in a half run of mischief, and that was the end of the matter. My point had been made without a fuss. Like my Rasta bredrens would say: "Easy squeezy makes no riot, mi breda."

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