Part 24 - Ghariokwu Lemi: Fela Kuti And Me

Chris May By

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"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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