“You know I told you – when we talk, I can talk,” Lemi Ghariokwu said, laughing. “I learnt that from Kalakuta, from Fela.” Ghariokwu is a visual artist most famous for his work with Fela Kuti, the iconic Nigerian Afrobeat singer. Ghariokwu designed the cover art for 29 out of Kuti’s 56 albums; the musician and the painter worked closely—artistically, ideologically, and in their activism—for four years in Lagos before they splintered. It was not a romantic relationship, although it had all the trying tempests, emotional investment, and eventual heartache of one. Their meeting, Ghariokwu said, “was pre-ordained, it wasn’t by accident, so our destinies had to cross at that juncture.” When they broke up, Ghariokwu was devastated, “I was so shocked, I just started crying, that was my natural reaction. It was like a lover breaking your heart in shreds.” Later years were peppered with tinged encounters, brief run-ins followed by nostalgia and resolute distance. Cover deals were formalized, invitations sent on letterhead. But they kept tabs on each other from a distance, and Ghariokwu still speaks to Kuti now — “I looked in the sky and said ‘Fela come and see now, you see.’”
Ghariokwu is 62 years old, but he has the vim of a child. His eyes are failing, tired from the many hours spent on a computer since beginning his work in graphic design in the early 90s, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he jumps up to receive vistitors at his studio in Lagos. Greeting me with a hug, he launched into loquacious explanations of the large-scale paintings that surrounded us. They were contemporary social commentary in his classical style: portraits of Fela; a re-purposed, expanded album cover; a cartoon of Trump on the toilet, and a depiction of the African continent overburdened with charity called “Dead Aids.” His studio has a small sitting room, almost like a gallery space, in the front. In the back, he has a room with a wide drawing table, and an office packed with books—both those he has studied, and the catalogues and magazines that have featured him. On the door, he has painted a replica of one of these magazines – a past cover story featuring his work. A graphic self-portrait overlays rays of purple and red and “Nigerian Natural Genius”—the title of the article—is painted in yellow in the corner.
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“I love the opportunity to tell my story because we have to put down our legacy strongly. Part of Africa’s problem was that Africa didn’t document things literarily, we had this oral history,” Ghariokwu said. And so, we talked. All day, in fact, as we drove from the studio to his childhood home in pouring rain, and he pointed out the compound where he designed his second cover. “I have a photograph of me painting it in that backyard, it’s a polaroid.” he tells me.
He talked as we drove through Moshalashi, where Kuti had his original Kalakuta Republic, the communal compound that housed his family, band members and recording studio. Ghariokwu visited the boisterous, radical republic every day of the 1970s, studying Buddhism, discussing Pan-Africanism and starting the Young African Pioneers youth movement. He talked as we toured his old studio, a beautiful open-plan flat in the Shomolu neighbourhood, where he designed hundreds of CD covers during the dawn of hip hop in Nigeria in the early 2000s. He talked as we wandered the expansive New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, which Fela’s children started in 2000 following their father’s passing in 1997. Femi and Seun Kuti are both now singers who perform their own distinct renditions of their father’s style. They follow similar beats, melodies, choreography and they are still elucidating and articulating many of the broken social realities their father addressed in his own songs. “Everything Fela said is still very relevant as if it’s today,” Ghariokwu said. “It’s very disheartening but, as a fighter you don’t give up…I don’t think it’s ever going to end, it’s just for you to create a balance between the forces of good and evil.”
And yet, at the end of the day, there were still things left to say – so I came back a week later and spent another few hours in his studio. We still weren’t done, so he dropped by my house to look over album covers on a Saturday afternoon. He talked as we ate ground nuts and garri. He talked as his barber dropped by to raze him. He talked in depth and detail, with incredible narrative flow, starting the story way back at the beginning, with context, naming all those that came before and helped frame his philosophies—Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Peter Tosh, Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko. “All my heroes are firebrands, they’re warrior spirits, I can’t be like them, but I get a lot of energy from what they’ve done,” he said. “I have a different character, I’m just cool and deadly, cool as cucumber.” Ghariokwu thinks in stories and in narrative; he looks back and sees the seeds that later sprouted into his manifestations, and he does not edit or condense – all of the relevant truths are woven into his storytelling, an approach he mimics in his visual style.
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Though he made covers in many different styles, his most famous aesthetic could be described as a political cartoon painted as a collage. It’s figurative, realist, literal, with a bit of space for the absurd—state leaders are depicted as devils on Beasts of No Nation, a whale overturns a police boat on Alagbon Close. The covers present direct social and political commentary, and they illustrate the songs, but from Ghariokwu’s own interpretation. “My art eventually acted as a supplement to the music, because I represented Fela’s thoughts from a different perspective, I became like a witness to what he was saying,” he said. The images are crammed onto the page, packed in and explosive. This was an aesthetic he developed after Kuti convinced him to try smoking weed. “Fela said ‘How can my artist be drinking Fanta, you need to shack Igbo, you’re brain will be crazier,’” Ghariokwu recalled. “He looked like a demi-god to me, so I said okay.” Ghariokwu got high and started asking a million questions, Kuti dropped him at home and told him to go straight to bed without talking to his parents. “When I was sleeping, Fela said ‘think of what you want to do on the cover’ …when I woke up eventually, I took my note and jotted down ideas. Then when I started my sketching they were so many so I started juxtaposing them, putting them together, as many as I could.” He worked on the cover for two weeks, and when he showed it to Fela, “Fela jumped, he said ‘Yeah, Lemi is a motherfucker mehn, look at that art!’” he recalled. “That style was effective so from then sometimes I’m clogged so I… started congesting. It became my style.”
Ghariokwu blamed a clash of egos, a conflict over strategy, and a creative dispute for his rift with Kuti. After four years intertwined, he distanced himself, at least physically, but their story unspooled throughout the rest of their lives. “My purpose is to be part of the work for Africa’s mental liberation, we need to liberate mentally, and that’s why I met Fela,” he said. “Here I am today, 44 years after, I’m as relevant as ever via Fela’s input, because we had to collaborate and it was a divine process,” he said. Eight years after they fought, they reconciled professionally, but emotionally they were never as close again.
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Ghariokwu had always asserted himself, taking credit for his design work. He put his name and photograph on the back of the albums he designed and wrote liner notes explaining his concepts. He was widely recognized for his art in Nigeria. He won awards at the Nigerian Music Awards. Journalists interviewed him and reviewed his album art. Other record labels hired him. “I was doing pretty well in Shomolu here,” Ghariokwu said. Then, in 2003 he was invited to show his work in Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, an exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. “I went to New York, they said ‘Lemi, you’re a legend, we grew up with your artwork, it was your artwork that invited us to Fela’s music…I’m picturing myself, I said ‘Me?’ So from 2003, I became globally famous.” That show was also part of what catalyzed Kuti’s growing global renown. Kuti had been widely successful in his lifetime, and was always recognized as a great talent and an important voice, but he was a complex character. “For a long time people didn’t want to recognize him as a hero, as a serious icon, though [he was] very popular with people…He was very radical, so the youths loved him, the downtrodden loved him, so he rode on that seriously,” Ghariokwu said. But also, “Fela was crazy…too much ego.”
Over the past couple of decades though, with the spread of Kuti’s imagery with Ghariokwu’s work, as well as the influential Fela! Broadway show, and the annual Felabration festival, Kuti’s status has been cemented. “I’m happy to represent in a positive light,” Ghariokwu said. “The little light he came with..is glowing, is growing.” He sees both himself and Kuti as luminaries, so he’s sharing the story; “Societies need philosophers to grow,” he said.