Globally renowned for providing many of the original cover artwork design for the albums of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Lemi Ghariokwu says that if he wasn’t a Fine Artist, Graphic Designer and illustrator, he would have become a musician, monk or philosopher.
In this exclusive interview, Lemi, who noted that he liked to put his surname (Ghariokwu) first, talks about his relationship with the Afrobeat legend and how that experience shaped his life and career path. Please put your smartphones on silent and enjoy the interview.
Sam Umukoro: How did you delve into the arts world?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: I discovered my gift and talent very early in life, as early as when I was seven or eight years old. I was self-taught. I believe in life every one of us has a purpose. So I guess my purpose is to do what I do with the art.
I kept practicing drawing. It even got me into a lot of trouble in class, when sometimes I would be busy sketching the teacher. When I finished secondary school in 1973, I kept practicing and used to go to the television station; then it was called NTS, National Television Services, which is the NTA (Nigeria Television Authority) of today. In those days, there was no pre-recording like in today’s TV.
Everything was shown live and direct. Then, I used to do live drawings of the presenters, such as Art Alade, Dejumo Lewis, who was the Oloja of Village Headmaster, Mike Enahoro, as the program was relayed. This included programmes like Youth Scene, Bar Beach Show and Youth Forum. Later, an advertising company called Image Making, based in Obalende, Lagos, invited me. They employed me as Artist Assistant, it lasted for two weeks, I was upset because I wasn’t allowed to handle the brush, so I left.
Two main events determined my professional destiny in life. First was the release of Bruce Lee’s film, ‘Enter the Dragon’. In my neighbourhood then, I used to do portraits for people, and the owner of this beer parlour commissioned me to do the poster of Enter the Dragon, rather than his own portrait, which I did. It included the three main Actors; Bruce Lee, John Saxon and Jim Kelly. The owner framed the painting of that poster and hung it in his beer parlour.
Secondly, it was the release of Fela’s album – Music of Fela, Roforofo Fight. I got a copy. When I listened to the music and looked at the cover my spirit just said to me, why don’t you translate the cover and do something different? So I gave myself that assignment and I did a sketch depicting Roforofo fight from my own point of view. You know roforofo is a Yoruba word for mud, so it literary translated into a ‘fight in the mud’. The song was actually about a scenario like that. In that artwork, I depicted Fela dancing on mud.
That was the origin of my concept and the way I related Fela’s message on album sleeves. I simply took a broad view, from my own point of view. I became like a mega-phone for what Fela professed. Most of my cover arts for his albums didn’t literally translate the lyrics or the songs inside; it just gave meaning to the ideology and message.
Sam Umukoro: So how did you meet Fela?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: I first saw Fela in 1972 at the Yaba College of Technology Secondary School, where I attended. Little did I know that my destiny was going to cross with his. Then, Fela, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Naiwu Osahon, and Wole Bucknor were members of this organization called the Nigeria Association of Patriotic Writers and Artistes (NAPWA), and they used to have their meetings at the Yaba College of Technology’s football field.
After their meeting, Fela will give a free show. I was in the audience and admired him. I didn’t know we were going to meet two years later. There was this journalist called Babatunde Harrison of Sunday Punch, which started as a weekly in 1973. He was a regular at the joint, where the Bruce Lee poster I did hung.
When Harrison, who just returned from the US, saw the Bruce Lee poster, he was surprised and asked to see who did it. They said it was a small boy next door. So he came and asked for my other drawings and saw that Fela cover, Roforofo Fight, and liked it. I was eighteen then and had done two covers before that, one was for my uncle, Peter Okoh, which was not published. I still have that original from 1973.
Back to Harrison. Two days before we met, he and Fela had discussed about covers, because Fela’s music was getting more conscious. I didn’t believe him because I had thought he was drunk. After all, he just came out of a beer parlour. So he said he was going to bring a Fela photograph for me to do a portrait as a test, and that he will take it to Fela. My mum, who had always been supporting me, gave me N5 to buy 18 x 24 inches frame, which I framed and glazed within 24 hours. That was how I met Fela.
Immediately Fela saw the artwork, he said “wow, god dammit!” It was the first time I heard those words and that was the beginning of the relationship. To cut the long story short, Fela immediately ushered me into his living room and brought out his cheque book. He wrote out a cheque for N120 and those days I used to do portraits for between N10 and N30. That was four times my regular fee. As he handed over the cheque, I said, “No, Fela, I no want. I give you from the bottom of my heart.” He was shocked. I was eighteen then.
When I gave him back the cheque, he tore it and then wrote something on a sheet of paper from this small exercise book. “Please admit bearer into any (of my) show, free of charge”. He signed and gave it to me. I collected that instead of the money. That was my ticket to Kalakuta. Later people were astounded and asked ‘who told you to be that smart?’ I replied that it was my destiny. So whenever Fela had shows anywhere, I was there and when I showed the paper to the gateman, he would ask, “How did you get this paper?”
In later years, I realised it was a very rare and royal privilege because Fela had four shows per week, On Tuesday’s it was called Ladies’ Night and free for ladies. Then, it was Yabbis Night on Friday, where he talked about the country’s situation and would lambast the government. Saturday was a comprehensive show, with the dancers on stage. It was the day he did his worship; you know he’s an African traditionalist.
While the dancers choreographed, he would do his worship. But Sunday was my favourite. That was the only one I actually attended, it was called the Sunday Jump and more for family. It started at 6pm and ended at 11pm.
Sam Umukoro: Describe your relationship with Fela and how he influenced you as a person.
LEMI GHARIOKWU: Talking about influence, Fela was 17 years older than I, but he took me in with open arms, like I was his own son or one of his best friends. At that point in time, I became his youngest adviser and was also a comrade-in-arms because I shared the same black/African consciousness ideology with him.
Then he started teaching us about Kwame Nkrumah, books on African history. So I just grasped everything and that made me closer to him. I was privy to the ideas and reasoning behind some of his songs. Eventually it was fait accompli to do those cover designs. That was how it was.
I was raised a Roman Catholic by my mum, who taught me a lot of things. So every time in Kalakuta, when they wanted to do something I felt was ‘weird’, I would say “I need to check with my mum”, and they would all laugh at me. Although I don’t drink or smoke, I did smoke igbo (weed) for a short time.
I always drank Fanta anytime we were at a gathering. So whenever Fela shared a smoke, I chose Fanta instead. One day he got slightly upset with me and said, “How can my artist be drinking Fanta? Lemi you need to “shak igbo” small, your head go correct more, and your creativity.” And I held him so much in high esteem those days. He was my icon. So when he made me try it out, I did.
In early 1975 when he recorded No Bread, and they had been waiting for me to do the cover, Fela said I should take igbo. When he saw that I became worried after taking it, he took me home himself in his Range Rover. On the way he said, “Just go and sleep, don’t ask your mum or dad any questions, don’t let them suspect you are high or something. Just say good night and go to sleep, meditate on what you want to do on the cover.”
Sam Umukoro: Did it work? Was your creativity enhanced?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: Yeah, it worked, sincerely. But I’m not an advocate for smoking. If you’re born smoker, that’s your business. And if you don’t want to smoke, no problem. I don’t discriminate anybody. But what I advocate is this; don’t be influenced by what you are not supposed to do. For somebody like me, I don’t drink alcohol. I have light brain. Because I know that, I don’t do follow-follow. But some people don’t know what I know, they follow influence and it affects them adversely.
People like Fela, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, they smoked copiously and it didn’t really affect them, maybe it’s their path. Some other people copy their smoking habits and then mess up their whole life because they won’t be constructive with the influence. I use that to teach young people. I don’t want to be seen as a bad influence whatsoever.
So I give advice, like when I took marijuana under Fela’s guidance, because he actually guided me. And that day, I felt quite scared, so he took me home himself in his Range Rover; that was how close we were.
Although I am pro-legalisation of marijuana, or igbo. If there was a vote, I will vote yes immediately for its legalisation.
Sam Umukoro: Did Fela put you on a monthly salary?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: No. I earned money from designing his album covers. All the work I did for Fela was on a professional basis. Although I was his friend, colleague-in-arms and we believed in the same ideology, but as soon as I did my art work, he paid me. But I helped him employ some persons, such as Bankole Femi Osunla, the photographer. I was never employed by Fela on a salary basis.
Later, I brought in two other friends; Durotimi Kujenyo and Mabinuori Kayode Idowu, and we became like the three musketeers. We always went out with Fela then and were later called the YAP boys, the Young African Pioneer boys. Fela actually guided me. He was an all-rounder. He was a genius in everything, not only musically. He was so smart; he could have become a lawyer himself.
I did five jobs in my life. At some point, I was holding two jobs at a point in time, like they do overseas, and earning two salaries. Then I was working in the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing, where I closed at 3:30pm or 4pm and resumed at Promark International in Ishaga road; where I closed around 11pm. I left home around 5:30 in the morning and came back around midnight. In my second year at Ministry of Works, I got promoted and my salary was increased from the original N96 to N104. I was on Level 4. But being a professional in the arts industry, I was also earning N200 from my part-time job at the Advertising Company. So I was earning N304 a month in total. That was a lot of money in those days.
Then, I used to feed most of my friends. I bought my first car at the age of 21, a brand new car, from my money. We had a party. I had my Kalakuta gang, so I wielded my own influence too. But one thing I can never forget was that Fela gave me so much freedom.
And he paid me well as an individual. That laid the foundation for me to grow. But it wasn’t actually about the money, it was about the opportunity.
Sam Umukoro: When did you become full-time artist?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: I believe so much in predestination, that we were all born for a purpose and have our destinies to fulfil. So, I’ll count myself as one of the fortunate billions who discovered their destiny early in life. This has really helped me, I’ve always stayed focused, no shaking like they say.
By the time I met Fela, my father wanted me to be a Mechanical Engineer. So my technical schooling was based on that. I did the Sciences and wasn’t a bad student. But by the time I finished secondary school, I was already passionate about arts. Then, I met Fela immediately after. I did the first Fela cover in 1974, Alagbon Close, and it was a hit.
For the first time in Nigeria, an album cover art was reviewed. So I became a star instantly. I had the rare privilege of having someone like Lindsay Barrett review my cover in 1975. Imagine someone writing about your art, and it was an album cover art. Those days, Fela sat us down to advise us. “Which work you wan do again? Make you dey design album cover,” he had told me then. By that time, I had done two album covers before his. So I replied, ‘it’s true o’. I was earning money, so what else?
Sam Umukoro: How did your mum react to your relationship with Fela?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: Like they say, success is the greatest revenge. Because I was successful with my art at the age of 18, 19, and I bought a car at 21; all my mum’s friends who used to pester her that I was going to Fela’s place, smoking igbo and all that, shut up when I bought the car.
One day she actually called me and asked, “You smoked marijuana?” I replied, “eh, yes I, but I didn’t like it and I’ve stopped it.” She believed me and replied, “So I can tell my friends to shut up.” That was the way I survived. If I wasn’t successful, it would have been more difficult. I had friends close to me who were not that successful and they were very antagonistic, also because they got so deep into the influence, they started attacking their parents, and ended up very badly. One of them was even taken to an asylum, and he wasn’t mentally unstable, but because of his over-reaction.
Like I keep saying, I’m not painting myself like a saint, please, I’m telling you exactly what it is. I am happy to be alive today, sometimes I look in the sky or whatever and I say Fela where are you, come and see. So, I will tell you sincerely, my character was totally different, from day one I was totally exposed to any god damn thing, like Fela used to say.
But sometimes I shuddered at some of the activities at Kalakuta and didn’t want to be part of this. Even if they laughed at me then, I didn’t mind. Sometime Fela said, “Lemi na Christian”, but I stopped going to Church in 1975. I don’t practise religion. I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a babalawo, I don’t do shrine worship.
Sam Umukoro: Does that make you atheist?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: No, I’m not an atheist. Maybe I don’t know. I’m not religious, but I believe in a supreme deity, if it’s God, Allah, Budha, Krishna or Eledumare; I don’t mind. I don’t fight anybody, whatever you want to believe in, believe, but I detest evangelism. I don’t like it when someone tries to convert me into his own religion, because I don’t preach to anybody to join me. I just want to live my life by example.
Sam Umukoro: You were a musician, at some point?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: Yeah, I composed a song with Daniel Wilson.
Sam Umukoro: Why did you decide to do music covers?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: Right from time, music has been in me. My first attempt at going professional was to become a high life musician. I was learning how to play the guitar with my uncle in his band called ‘The Patience Rhythm Dance Band’ under Decca Records Label.
The second cover I designed was for Tesi Allan and that was my first published album cover. Then I met Fela and became a star. So eventually I pioneered record sleeve designing as profession in Nigeria because I was the first professional full-time sleeve designer. I didn’t know it was my destiny; I just did that.
Before me there was Oke Otis, F.O Samson and some others. Then they were graphic artistes, but they simply did covers with their graphic work, but I decided to make it full-time because of Fela’s advice. I deliberately didn’t go to university also. But I sat for the GCE and I did Life-Drawing at Igbobi College. It was a three-hour paper, but I finished in one-and-half hours. I put my paper down for my friend, he copied the drawing and both of us got A1 distinction when the results came out. So I told Fela, see my friend who even copied my work also got A1. Later, I wanted to go to Yaba College of Technology or the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to do Arts. I sought Fela’s advice.
“Lemi, see me, my parents wanted me to be a medical doctor like my other siblings, but I had the music bug. So I took music. I went to Trinity college, they taught me Classical Music. When I got back, I was confused. I was playing high-life, jazz, and Rex Lawson, who didn’t go to the school of music, was more of a genius than I was. If I did not have a strong will power to shake all that colonial education away, I won’t be who I am today,” he told me then. People who didn’t know Fela’s background will never believe he went to university to study music in England.
He deliberately sang in Pidgin English. He told me he saw my originality and wanted me to keep it, which was why he gave me the opportunity to do art works for his album covers. I also sought my mum’s advice, she told me it was okay and that it was my destiny.
Fela also told me that since I could read and write, I should buy books and study. I bought my first book in 1975. It’s called the History of World Arts. I still have it in my studio.
Sam Umukoro: Considering the kind of society we live in today, have you been in a situation where not having a university degree created a sort of complex for you?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: Not at all. It’s a state of mind, like a song lyrics goes, “the promised land is a state of mind.” Everything we believe – our self-esteem, inferiority complex, superiority complex or confidence – is a state of mind. Because I study, my art has taken forty years of my life. I’m not boasting, it’s a conscious effort. It’s not by prayer or miracle, I study.
Fela said to me, since you can read and write, buy books on art, study and pick what you want. So I started buying books. I have books on Michael Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso. I studied them and gained confidence. You know why? Check the lives of all these people like Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, they went through apprenticeship, none of them had a University degree. Then I started my own training. I started training apprentices too, so I became more confident.
Sam Umukoro: Tell us about your music
LEMI GHARIOKWU: I write songs. I have over 400 songs. Sometime ago, I looked at my writings and said to myself, maybe I’ll just die one day and cockroach will eat all these things. So in 1986, I decided I was going to record my own album. It was reggae time then. It’s like today if you say you want to record and say you don’t want to play hip-hop; the record company will not take you seriously. I was very close to Polygram and designed all their albums, from Ras Kimono, Orits Wiliki, Mandators… name them, I designed all that, and they were my friends. I love afro-beat, but I also love reggae, because it has spiritual and pan-African content, and socio-political consciousness.
Sam Umukoro: What about Hip-Hop?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: See what our youths are doing, all the songs are about girls, boobs and sex. Although Fela sang about girls, boobs and sex, but he also sang about social things. Sex, love and girls are part of life, but why should that be the emphasis now with all we are going through? They’re not doing any social commentary at all.
Sam Umukoro: Do you consider yourself a revolutionary?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: I have never pretended to be a revolutionary. I have worked with revolutionaries, all my heroes are revolutionaries, like Peter Tosh, Bob Marley…I named myself after Peter Tosh, so if you know Peter Tosh, you’ll know that is just Fela in Jamaica. He fought for legalisation, he got beaten like Fela, not by mouth.
I love Stephen Biko in South Africa, you see the same character. I love Malcolm X. So all my heroes are like that, but you know, I’m not their character. The element I took from them is the confidence to do what they did, and I’m hoping I can be bold enough. But I am bold in my own quiet way.
Sam Umukoro: Looking back at your illustrious career, what are some of those things that bring a smile to your face or tears to your eyes?
LEMI GHARIOKWU: For me as a person, my philosophy is I never regret anything. I take every instance, occasion, situation or ‘shit’uation’ as part of life; because I believe life is a pendulum, it swings high and low. No condition is permanent, like they say, so be ready. I tell people, when it’s rosy, smile; good, it’s higher right now. When it’s bad, be ready, it will still be good again.
For me, I just keep with the flow of life. But, about specific incidents that made me smile… Okay, I cried tears of joy at my exhibition. I was excited when I saw the way it was packaged in the brochure. I was happy and proud of doing it here in Nigeria. I’m a firm believer in this country, even though it’s so messed up, I will never run away. I learnt that from Fela. Did you see the Broadway Show? You saw the element that was really harnessed there, about Fela standing, not running away. You know a lot of our ‘heroes’ are critical of the society. They’ll run away, go and die elsewhere. I’ve travelled a little. But I love to be here (in Nigeria).
I chose May 25 to launch my exhibition because I remember Fela used to celebrate Africa Day. That day was also the 50th anniversary of the African Union (AU). So, I posted about 40 pictures of Facebook recently because I wanted to publicise the African Day and titled the album ‘Gharioku Lemi Celebrates Africa Day with New Exhibition’. Since then, it has generated over a hundred comments. I’ve never got that before, and I was happy.