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Part 23 - Ghariokwu Lemi: The Art of Afrobeat

Chris May By

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AAJ: Among all your covers, did Fela have any special favorites?

GL: I think he loved every one of them. I don't know of any favorites he had. I guess we may have to ask Fela himself!

AAJ: Alongside working with Fela's musical message, you were active in the Young African Pioneers too, weren't you?

GL: I was a founder member of YAP. That was in 1976. My role was mainly ideological and I did all the designs [YAP published a newspaper, fliers and posters]. I always took part in intellectual activities, and on a few occasions I took part in civil disobedience in my own little way.

With the albums and YAP, I was intensely involved with Fela. But I never lived at Kalakuta. I always carved a niche for myself, I always knew who I am and what I can do, and I always had my own head screwed on tight. I didn't have a need to live in Kalakuta at all. I know Fela would have loved me to, but believe me, I am a different warrior. There's a photo of me with Fela [pictured above] pointing in the same direction he is: we agreed totally in the realm of Pan African ideology and its progressive philosophy!

AAJ: Which aspects of Fela's philosophy do you feel are most important today?

GL: The philosophical and ideological aspects are one and the same, and they remain relevant and very important, even more so today. Africa has not moved progressively one step forward in my own observations from the 1970s until now. All the problems Fela was singing about have become even worse. The level of ignorance is deepening for lack of proper education, a proper curriculum in all levels of institutions of learning. Compound that with the proliferation of the monstrosity called religion and you have a people forever sinking deeper and deeper into a sleepless slumber.

When I look at people walking in the streets all over Africa, I see most are dressed in western clothing, even though it is hot and balmy here. All the youngsters, boys and girls, are in denim jeans and sometimes I feel like I'm walking in the streets in New York or London. I remember my cover art for JJD and wonder when the message will hit home. By the same token, when I see ninety per cent of our women with straightened hair, and some using skin-lightening creams, I remember the Yellow Fever [1976] cover art and I shake my head. And I shake it more when I look at the state of the world today and the role of western imperialism—when I look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what is happening in Libya, in the guise of protecting a people from their own dictators, only to end up adding more catastrophe to an already bad situation. In the end, we are left to wonder. I remember, in a very fond way, my cover for Beasts of No Nation [1989]. I could go on and on, but I think those are enough examples to illustrate my point.

AAJ: Aside from your work with Fela, what other covers are you particularly pleased with?

GL: I'm happy with a legion of them, to be honest. But to mention just a few, I'd have to include covers for The Mandators, Orits Wiliki, Antibalas and Akoya Afrobeat—and most recently, for Seun Anikulapo Kuti's From Africa With Fury: Rise [2011].

AAJ: How would you sum up your life and work so far?

GL: My life and my work are conscious and my art is my life. Whatever I try to do, it is activist in my own style and tempo. I believe strongly that art has a great role to play in the engineering of any progressive society. I have come a very long way from my observations to identify my own obligations, because I also believe strongly we all have a role to play in our respective societies—and at some point in our lives, we should be able to move from the observation stage into the obligation stage. I feel privileged to be alive today to see the world as it is presently running and be able to compare it with our revolutionary zeal in the 1970s. My work and my mission continues and I will never give up the light for any form of darkness, even though the world may seem so consumed right now.

AAJ: What projects can we look forward to during the rest of 2011 and going into 2012?

GL: I just finished a trip to Norway where I took part in the Another Music Exhibition. Brazil has been cancelled because of the landslide. London and Oslo are knocking for September/October, and Finland and Paris are slated for early 2012. I have lofty dreams and ideas to consolidate my legacy, and I want to be busy in their regard the rest of my life. My dreams never die fast, I must tell you. My dreams are made to last forever and a day.

To be continued: A follow-up interview with Ghariokwu Lemi, conducted following the opening of FELA! in Lagos, is slated for Afrobeat Diaries. Stay tuned.

Photo Credits

All Photos: Courtesy of Ghariokwu Lemi


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