LEMI GHARIOKWU IS A LEGEND
He has the honour of being the very first contact between pop music and African traditional art and expressions through his work as a graphic artiste. One of the biggest music legends and cultural forces in world music, Fela Anikulapo Kuti would have been incomplete without the subtle skills of another legend, Lemi Gharioku who is reputed to have given bite to Fela’s social struggle with excellent mind blistering graphic expressions to Fela musical career by way of cover design. To the countless followers of the Abami Eda all over the world, his message and the cover design are one and the same and Lemi was the one who held down that department for the better part of Fela’s music career. Today painfully Lemi goes as one of the most unsung icons of our time. Historians and music aficionados must stand up to their responsibility by giving this icon of our time who is still designing and packaging mind blowing cover designs for quite a number of today’s artistes who recognize classics when they see one. It is said that incidentally Lemi’s career revolved around Fela as his association with the king of Afrobeat stoked up a fire nationalism that was actually not evident in his formative years, and for this reason, Lemi shunned commercialism and pursuit of materialism to support Fela in his struggles back in the day
Back 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.
The self-taught designer did so, and a few days later a journalist called Babatunde Harrison entered the parlor, saw the 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.
He did the portrait and Harrison took it to Fela and he instantly got his very first meeting with his idol, Fela Anikulapo Kuti right in his house at the infamous Kalakuta Republic who offered Lemi a check. But he turned down the check and Fela gave him free pass to every of his shows and that was how the biggest alliance with the biggest artiste began which can be described as the legendary collaboration between Fela and a certain young graphic artiste called Lemi Ghariokwu..
That journey would last for nearly 20 years, as Ghariokwu would come to be Kuti’s main cover artist, becoming the man behind the iconic images synonymous with identifying the blistering afrobeat sound. Overall, Ghariokwu designed 26 album covers for Kuti, who died on August 2, 1997.
Culled from Mystreetz Magazine