Lemi Ghariokwu, Fela Kuti’s artist: ‘He always had someone for rolling joints. It was a rockstar lifestyle’

Teeming with stimuli in highly-populated scenes reminiscent of a Where’s Wally? spread, a Lemi Ghariokwu painting is instantly recognisable. Raised in Lagos, the 66-year-old has painted over 2,000 album covers for artists both major and independent in Nigeria and beyond, but his most famous were for Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti – visible in a new box set out this month – whose warrior spirit railed against the country’s military regime and aligned with Ghariokwu in an eventful four-year partnership.

At five years old, Ghariokwu would draw luxury cars that sometimes drove by, using a broomstick on Lagos’s unpaved sand streets. He would not pursue art professionally until 17, when he came across a record designed by Roger Dean, the British artist famous for his work with prog band Yes. “Seeing him have magazine interviews because of his work, the inspiration was foundational,” he says.

His prolific output began via his friendship with musician Sonny Okosun, who was invited for a TV interview. “I went along and made a sketch of the presenter, and [the studio] started to invite me to draw on live TV. I always made sure I was finished by the time the show ended so the public could see [the finished product].”

His opportunity to meet Kuti came at 18, when local journalist Babatunde Harrison was impressed by a Bruce Lee tribute painting he made for his local bar. “I found out that Babatunde wanted to buy it for 120 naira [close to £800 today]. I knew that was my golden ticket into Fela’s world,” Ghariokwu says, positively gleaming with the memory. Harrison challenged him to draw a portrait of Kuti to see if he was worthy of meeting the man himself. The next day, Lemi waited outside the bar with a framed and completed portrait, to Harrison’s amazement. He ordered a taxi to Kuti’s communal compound, known as the Kalakuta Republic, immediately.

Declared by Kuti as an independent state, to the contempt of the Nigerian military, the Republic accommodated Kuti’s family and an in-house band among a carnival of other residents. “When it came to Kalakuta, Fela was a very good human resources manager,” Ghariokwu explains. “He gave jobs for everyone there: some of the girls were dancers, some were singers; there were chefs and DJs. He always had one or two ‘rollers’, who were responsible for rolling up joints. Fela even had his own court in the house – if there was a fight between two members of the Republic, he would hold the court session himself.” Ghariokwu describes the place as “surreal, like a rockstar lifestyle. DJs played music 24/7 in Kalakuta – you would wake up and James Brown’s Sex Machine would be playing on massive speakers.”

Bonding over teachings of spiritualism from British-born Tibetan lama Tuesday Lobsang Rampa and black empowerment from Malcolm X, Ghariokwu notes the immediate connection the two had. “The synergy between us was there right away,” he says. “The relationship only grew from there.” Travelling to Kalakuta every day for four years, Ghariokwu observed Kuti as he wrote and perfected new music. Kuti trusted him like a best friend, and this vantage point allowed Ghariokwu to offer spontaneous visual responses to Kuti’s ideas. In his words: “I am embellishing his point of view and adding my perspective. I am visualising the soul of the music.”

This was most evident when Kuti was brutalised by the police in 1974 and urgently wanted to write about it. “I met him at the hospital, and he had a broken skull that needed 17 stitches,” he winces. “But he said he wanted to write a song directly attacking the police. That was the moment he chose that role of fighting the establishment directly.” That song would become Alagbon Close, the title track of a Kuti album that first used Ghariokwu’s artwork.

Tensions between Kalakuta and the Nigerian military would ultimately pollute Lemi and Fela’s friendship. After Kuti released the scolding political album Zombie in 1976, the Republic was burned down by a thousand soldiers in retaliation. Ghariokwu was disturbed: “I was 22. It was scary shit.” Relations between him and Kuti worsened after an argument 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 burning house when it was a year ago? He poked my chest: ‘check your mind, your mind is weak.’ I drove away crying, I was so heartbroken,” he recalls.

Despite their split, Ghariokwu’s work refracted into many different areas of black culture in the decades after. For 11 years each, he created artwork for Polygram and Kennis Music, the latter a Nigerian label that preceded the Afrobeats explosion of today. Meanwhile, his influence shaped socially-conscious US hip-hop, from the Pan-African paintings that cover A Tribe Called Quest’s albums to the handwritten titles of De La Soul’s classics. Though Ghariokwu’s time with Kuti ended at just 22, his art has lasted. He posits a simple explanation as to why: “I reflected my generation.”

Fela Kuti Boxset 5, curated by Chris Martin and Femi Kuti, is out now

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