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Part 24 - Ghariokwu Lemi: Fela Kuti And Me

Chris May By

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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.

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