Music, Ink & Vibrations With King Lemi Ghariokwu
Lemi Ghariokwu has for a long time been dubbed the King of Covers, not just because a fancy British paper (The Observer) first said it. This credit is due him just from being the first in his environment to work on music cover art for top musicians, starting from Fela Kuti in the 70's to very, very many others even in present times.
As an acclaimed visual artist whose works have been exhibited in Lagos, London, New York and various other parts of the world, he has stayed consistent maintaining his message and depth of soul in an ever-evolving world. His art isn't all that draws you but also his spirit and his charisma.
He is an avid lover of music, big surprise! I mean, he makes music artwork and even made/released a record in 1992 and he is a big believer in the African renaissance and consciousness, another big surprise!
This near septuagenarian has the sense of humor of a millennial and the energy of a gen z whilst serving the wisdom of his time and experience. It was great to meet him at this small youth event and then later receiving an invitation to his Lagos (Nigeria) home, granting an interview that ended up being one interestingly warm conversation. Here is an abridged version for the readers.
By Ugo Mordi
After Fela what has been your greatest achievement
LG: As an artist, okay, that's interesting. After Fela, I will say, there has not been an after Fela. And that's why I say I believe in destiny, you know. I think, no, not think I know, I've been destined to, you know, have that divine collaboration with Fela, and I'm still working on Fela's stuff till now. So that's why I'm saying there's no after Fela.
As an artist, as a human being first and foremost, I don't weigh things as my greatest achievement. I don't. I don't really weigh, I just take it one day at a time, I keep walking with the determination that I definitely must make my presence known in this world, in this time. And then my presence is known to a certain degree, I just want to keep on at it till I joined the ancestors. So that's the way I see things. And because if you have reached the sky already, then where are you going?
I've had momentous occasions that I feel very, very, so fulfilled over. I felt like, no, wow, "Na Me Be This?".
Which 3 artworks were your most memorable?
LG: Okay, that's an interesting question. There is one that when I'm pushed to a corner, I choose that one because I have sentimental value attached to it. JJD. It broke my relationship with Fela. Another one when you say memorable I think, Beast of No Nation, yes, very powerful. It's so memorable because it has global attention.
The day Margaret Thatcher died, I got two emails, one from magazine in the UK and another journal in the US. The same day. They are not linked, but that's how powerful that cover and the statement in the music was. And they referenced my cover art for Fela, I had Margaret Thatcher with fangs on the cover. I still hold the same opinion about her. I calculated my response very well, I said sincerely that at the point when the music was composed, the lyrics and so on, I remember people in the UK, were very uptight to Margaret Thatcher's Iron fist-hood and they had called her milk snatcher because I think she stopped the distribution of milk to families or so. I still hold the same impression as at then because the music and the art is telling to history.
The third one maybe I'll say Yellow Fever for demographic reasons, one time my manager then did like a survey, Yellow fever was coming tops when it came to choice of covers. And mostly women love that cover a lot.
And I'm happy that people never saw it as sensual because it wasn't intended to be sensual even though it has boobs and all that, but it was caustic. It was a straight to your face approach to Fela's lyrics because Fela's lyrics was very caustic. There was angst in his lyrics against African women bleaching their skin. And he had been graphic by saying your yansh go black, your mustache go show. So I have done that effectively with images.
Also I love the reggae era, I love reggae music, I love The Mandators covers, then Majek Fashek, I'm biased to reggae. And then I did like 18 Osita Osadebe covers even Oliver De Coque I did like 15 covers. I'm still doing covers but all these ones from back then I was most passionate about.
Did you ever at any point work on projects that you didn?t really connect to but had to do only for the money? Which ones?
LG: Thousands naw
It would sound cheap to say, just for the money. But thousands of the covers I didn't feel anything, just as a professional it's my duty. That's my job. I don't have any affiliations with emotional, ideological, but with the conscious one, I'm a conscious African. Those conscious ones, I have bias because I always feel like I'm in my elements when I'm doing them, that I can relate to what they're talking about. But the general ones, I don't think, I service as a professional.
You have made covers for different eras of music in Nigeria, from Fela to Eedris to Falz, do you have an opinion on the evolution of the soundscape & the industry in Nigeria?
LG: In the 70's, 80's people like us used to frown at the fact that you tuned the radio, it's 99% foreign music. And we didn't have a musical identity as such. Nigeria didn't have, Fela was the one that was represented on the global, but he was very local because he didn't have backing of any multinational company exposure like that, it wasn't projected for promotion, like the kind of opportunities that people like Bob Marley had in Jamaica. And gradually things started adding. That's why I say I'm evolutionary, because all these things that Fela did, the effect started showing much later.
Today young people are speaking Pidgin-English freely. It was Fela and Fela's kalakuta. They were speaking pidgin English and those other people laughed. When you were speaking Pidgin, it's like, you're not educated, you didn't go to school.
But today, you know, when I see all these boys are speaking pidgin (in music), so fluent and it's so nice and I'm happy, I said, Fela where you dey o? Come and see o! it's taken like 40 years for it to evolve. So I look at all of them. They call their form Afrobeats, right? It's still from Fela inspiration and influence. And most of them have referenced Fela one way or the other, it could be centered, it could be a word. You understand. You hear Wizkid Joro is from Zombie Joro jara Joro. Simi recently did a song with Lady and all that.
So that's the evolution of it. That's how things have gone. So people like me have witnessed it and being part of it. My role is still continuous. I have done covers for that era and I'm doing covers for this era.
It's a great time to be alive. I'm privileged to be around to witness this year. And that's why I say I'm never losing hope for Nigeria and let's teach those who don't know, we'll just leave the message there, we never can tell somebody will pick and it will grow right?
Fela made conscious revolutionary music and you the visual representation in the cover and everything you both shed light on is still as is today, hardly any change. Do you still believe there is any point to that kind of message in art?
LG: Yeah, there is always a point of it and it's erroneous to assume that nothing has shifted. Things shift. That's what evolution is all about. The shift may be very marginal, but shifts are even supposedly marginal because the laying of foundation of a scenario of the mentality that we are on today didn't take two days, it's been on for over 500 years.
You understand this mental slavery thing. So for us to be able to correct it eventually, it could take another 500 years, but we have to start and we have started. People like Fela had started prior to that, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther, Malcom X these people have been precursors.
So the change that is notable is part of what I mentioned a little earlier, where I said we now have a musical identity.
We didn't have it 20- 30 years ago and today we have radio channels that plays like 100% Nigeria. You know, that's a lot of progress. You understand? That is a lot of progress compared to 20-30 years ago.
Imagine a Nigerian musician, traveling to another place and they're giving him flowers, before it's people like Beyonce that can get that kind of treatment. So things have really moved much.
You went from portrait art to album cover and graphics, then printing litography, then digital.
Do you have a description for your artistic process?
LG: ...I just thought of it one day. I said, I'm going to use plastic and the aqua board as material to create new art. So I came up with the art. When my collectors eventually came, they screamed, whoa! They said, "It's Afro pop art". So they branded my work Afro pop art, we had the exhibition here in Lagos and another in the UK. This was in 2008-2009.
Another collector in the UK wanted me to do such work again for an exhibition in the UK. I did that which was called Afro pop art. Years went by and then I said I don't like that word 'pop'. So I started rebranding and then decided to call it Afro Art-Beat. In an interview with some Swedish people doing a documentary while at my exhibition, when they asked I said oh yes you know it's like Afrobeat art but so that I won't have any challenge from the owner of Afrobeat, I called Mine Afro Art-Beat.
My style can be described as rebellious, political, comical and sometimes erotic.
How have you managed with evolution through the times
LG: What helped me to have a longevity in my career. I was always attuned to processes and what was going on around me. I keep talking about my spirit, I like being in tune. So I was doing graphics in the 80's, very early in the 90's.
My business days had a type setting section. Those days we do type settings. We had the electric typewriter, IBM, they were called Celectric. I did design and printing a lot, I specialized in customized invitation cards. Then one day this guy came in and he said this Celectric that I have, that in a few years it will be obsolete, that the computer has more fonts embedded in it already? Eventually I agreed, lo and behold, I got my first computer in 1992 and here we are 30 years after? You see, it's helped me. Today young people are talking about NFT, because I have prepared myself earlier the NFT digital art is not so strange to me, I'm trying to find my bearing in it now.
So that's the beauty of one being abreast of whatever field you are in. You need to get information. Because life itself is like fashion. You understand? Trends come and trends go. So you have to be able to move with the trends to have a longevity in career so that's how it is.