You may be a die-hard fan of Fela Kuti and still not know who Lemi Ghariokwu is but we want to help you rectify that. Lemi Ghariokwu is the talented artist behind all of Fela Kuti’s album covers.
He is without a doubt one of Nigeria’s greatest visual artists, a man who impressed Fela so much that the legendary musician and activist continued to work with him time and time again.
Fela Kuti and Lemi Ghariokwu Meet
When Lemi Ghariokwu was straight out of secondary school, he was making portraits for people in his neighborhood. As luck or fate would have it, he was asked by a local bar owner to draw a poster for the Martial arts action film “Enter the Dragon,” starring Bruce Lee (a big deal at the time).
The bar owner displayed his drawing in his pub and that was where a journalist called Babatunde Harrison saw it a few days later. The journalist asked to meet Ghariokwu who lived next door with his parents and when he did, he asked to see more of his drawings.
Among the drawings he showed the journalist was an illustration of Fela Kuti dancing on mud. The drawing had been inspired after Lemi Ghariokwu bought an album by Kuti called “Roforofo Fight” (roforofo means mud in Yoruba) and the journalist who was suitably impressed and was a friend of Fela Kuti, had asked Ghariokwu whether he could design album covers.
After Lemi Ghariokwu said yes, Harrison brought him a picture of Kuti to do a portrait as a test and after he passed that test, he took him to meet Fela Kuti. While recalling his first meeting with Fela at his home, the infamous Kalakuta Republic, Ghariokwu said;
“When he saw the portrait, Fela said, ‘wow, God damn it,’”
According to him, Fela loved the portrait so much that he wrote him a check of N120 on the spot where he used to earn just 30 naira for his portraits. He, however, rejected the money and gave him the work free of charge. Fela who was surprised by the move tore up the check, took a sheet of paper and wrote ‘please admit bearer to any show free of charge.’
It was the beginning of the visual and musical partnership of the two. Lemi Ghariokwu in time became a member of Fela’s much loved Young African Pioneers. Young African Pioneers were self-proclaimed rebels who supported Fela’s music with their art, poetry, and writings.
Lemi Ghariokwu became one of Fela’s closest confidants despite being seventeen years his junior, and, as he puts it, the two were “comrades in arms.” They read Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey together, discussed Pan-Africanism and Ghariokwu says; “I became like his son,”
According to him:
“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.’
Lemi Ghariokwu After Fela Kuti
Lemi Ghariokwu now has a career spanning almost 40 years which includes designing 26 original cover images for the Nigerian musician legend, Fela Kuti and over 2,000 other album cover designs for a range of other artists that include Bob Marley and other legends. His designs are multifaceted and combine a variety of styles and media.
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 and now, still only sixty, Lemi is organizing his archives and preparing to open a museum of his work in Lagos.