Shedding light on the artist who created most of Fela Kuti’s iconic music covers

Legendary and trailblazing Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti has made waves for his nonconformity, ideals and radical character. Known as the pioneer of Afrobeat, he achieved astonishing popularity through his music. He was also a human rights activist and Pan-Africanist who encountered many problems with Nigerian politicians and the law due to the fact that he was confident in speaking his mind either through music or songs. random conversations.

Kuti was a creative genius. He made sure his social and political views were reflected in his album covers, which criticized political oppression, corruption, police brutality, and more. One could not ignore his album covers, just like his music.

Lemi Ghariokwu is responsible for most of these unforgettable album covers. The Nigerian designer has created graphics for many of the singer’s hits including ‘Zombie’, ‘No Bread’ and ‘Beast of No Nation’.

“I designed 26 covers during his lifetime and created a movement in art and music,” Ghariokwu, now in his 60s, told CNN.

The artist was only five years old when he started drawing cars passing with a broomstick on the sandy streets of Lagos. His father wanted him to become an engineer, but he wanted to pursue artistic studies. And so right after primary school, he started taking art seriously after being inspired by the works of British artist Roger Dean.

Ghariokwu then began a friendship with musician Sonny Okosun. One day when Okosun was invited for a TV interview, Ghariokwu went with him and sketched the presenter. The studio soon began inviting her to draw live on television. “I always made sure I was done at the end of the show so the audience could see [the finished product],” Ghariokwu told the Guardian.

At 18, Ghariokwu finally met Kuti through journalist Babatunde Harrison who was fascinated by a painting of Bruce Lee that Ghariokwu made for his local bar. Before taking him to meet Kuti, Harrison asked Ghariokwu to draw a portrait of Kuti to see if he deserved to see the Afrobeat legend. Ghariokwu created the portrait, catching Harrison and Kuti’s attention when he finally encountered the legendary musician in his communal compound, known as the Republic of Kalakuta.

The communal compound housed his family, band members, his recording studio and others. Ghariokwu and Kuti bonded as soon as they met. They have become like family through their stance on social issues and their ideas about spiritualism and black empowerment. Ghariokwu was at the time already inspired by the Black Panthers in the United States describing them as heroes. He was also fond of civil rights activists and singers like Miriam Makeba.

Kuti advised the young artist to buy books and learn more about politics, history, spirituality and art instead of going to college. And Ghariokwu did just that. “His key point was…if you go through this system of bad education, you will lose your originality and your identity,” Ghariokwu told CNN.

For four years, Ghariokwu traveled to Kalakuta to observe Kuti as he worked on new music. He will then work to visualize the soul of his music. In November 1974, police stormed Kuti’s compound in Kalakuta and arrested him. The police raided his home under the pretext of looking for a young woman whom Kuti allegedly wrongfully abducted. Kuti was allegedly beaten by the police.

“I met him in the hospital and he had a broken skull that needed 17 stitches,” Ghariokwu recalled. “But he said he wanted to write a song directly attacking the police. That’s when he chose this role of directly fighting the establishment.

This song attacking the police would become Alagbon Close, the title track of an album by Kuti which featured Ghariokwu’s work for the first time. “It was my very first chance,” Ghariokwu told VF. “I created my cover art and it’s instructive in the sense that it signaled what I was going to do on his covers eventually. In fact, I illustrated it without directly relating to the lyrics – my cover art was totally abstract.

“It was the first time in Nigeria that when the album came out, they enthusiastically reviewed the music, and they also reviewed the album cover,” he added. “That was the start of the album cover dynasty.”

During this period, Kuti became a fierce critic of Nigerian military dictators, so that just after the release of his political album Zombie in 1976, some 1,000 soldiers burned down his Kalakuta Republic home. “I was 22. It was scary,” Ghariokwu recounted, adding that the incident had started to affect his friendship with the legendary singer.

What made matters worse was an argument he had with Kuti over the cover art for 1977’s Sorrow Tears and Blood. “I showed him the artwork, and he [glanced] and complained that I didn’t include his Burning Republic. Why should I draw the house on fire when it was a year ago? He pushed my chest: ‘check your mind, your mind is weak.’ I left crying, I was so heartbroken,” Ghariokwu recalled in his interview with The Guardian.

Even though Ghariokwu stopped working with Kuti after just four years, his art and fame did not die. He went on to create thousands of covers for other artists and even invented his own creative movement called Afro Art Beat. Since then he has designed over 2,000 album covers and exhibited in Lagos, New York and London.

“I work with revolutionaries. I love their warrior spirits. All of my heroes are warrior spirits,” he told CNN. “I am not a warrior spirit. I’m an evolutionary… As an evolutionary, I believe we have to package things right, work on them. Now, over time, it will grow.