The man behind Fela's album covers


I did the portrait and lo and behold he took me to Fela just like that,” says Ghariokwu, recalling his first meeting with Kuti at his house, the infamous Kalakuta Republic. “When he saw the portrait, Fela said, ‘wow, God damn it,’” he recalls, laughing. It was the first time I heard these words. Fela loved the portrait so much and wrote me a check for 120 naira — I used to earn 30 naira for my portrait work — but I rejected it. I said ‘I don’t want money, I give you the work from the bottom of my heart.
He was very surprised so he tore up the check, took a sheet of paper and wrote ‘please admit bearer to any show free of charge,’ continues Ghariokwu. That was my ticket to Kalakuta; that was the beginning [of the journey].
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Lemi Ghariokwu is one of Africa's greatest visual artists. Lemi has a career spanning almost 40 years which includes designing 26 original cover images for the Nigerian musician legend, Fela Kuti. Lemi also has over 2,000 other album cover designs to his credit including covers for Bob Marley and a host of other music legends. Lemi's style to art is influenced by his deep philosophical views on social and political events. His designs are multi-faceted and combine a variety of styles and media.

He was a member of Fela's much loved Young African Pioneers. These self-proclaimed rebels supported Fela's music with their art, poetry and writings. Lemi relationship with Fela Kuti was very close and he was often mentored and advised by the Afrobeat legend. Ghariokwu's works are in the collection of art and afrobeat lovers around the world. His painting, Anoda Sistem, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.



That initial meeting in 1973 changed Lemi’s life. From there, he’d become one of Fela’s closest confidants despite being seventeen years his junior, and, as he puts it, the two were “comrades in arms.” They studied metaphysics together, they read Marcus Garvey and Malcom X, they discussed Pan-Africanism. “I became like his son,” Lemi says. “When he was recording a tune, I was close to the process, so by the time he recorded the album, it was almost a fait accompli for me to illustrate the album. Most of the time, ninety percent of the time, he’d say, ‘Lemi, it’s a motherfucker, man.’

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For Lemi, a 20-year journey into friendship and artistic expression via the covers of Fela's ever expressive afro-beat music, started out in 1973; Lemi Ghariokwu was straight out of secondary school, spending his ample free time giving himself drawing assignments and making portraits for people in his neighborhood. Martial arts action film "Enter the Dragon," starring Bruce Lee, was a big hit at the time, and Ghariokwu was asked by a local bar owner to draw a poster of the movie for his pub. 

A few days later a journalist called Babatunde Harrison entered the parlor, saw the poster hanging on the wall and quickly asked to see the person who'd created it. When he met Ghariokwu, who was living next door with his parents, Harrison requested to see more of his drawings. Amongst them was an illustration of Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti dancing on mud -- Ghariokwu had previously bought an album by Kuti called "Roforofo Fight" (roforofo means mud in Yoruba) and had given himself the task of creating his own version of the album cover. Impressed by Ghariokwu's work, Harrison, who was a friend of Kuti, asked Ghariokwu whether he could design album covers. The teen artist reluctantly said yes and then Harrison brought him a picture of Kuti to do a portrait as a test.


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Still only sixty, Lemi is now organizing his archives and preparing to open a museum of his work in Lagos, where people continue to come to pay respect to what he and Fela created.

Fela didn’t respect anyone initially, but when you had something to offer, he showed so much respect. He gave me so much freedom of expression.