Nigerian artist keeps Fela’s legacy alive

With more than 2,000 published album cover ‘sleeves’ to date, self taught Nigerian illustrator, fine arts, and graphic artist, Ghariokwu Lemi, 54, has created for some of the world’s most renowned musicians, including the late, Honorable Bob Marley.

But today’s reference books show he will go down in history most for his intense analytical works with Nigerian legend and, some say, undisputed King of the soulful Afrobeat, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Known to his own fans world-wide as just ‘Lemi’ the painter still first and foremost teaches mixed generations of his friend Fela’s incredible career of starting a new, powerful era of African music that let people ‘get their dance on’ as well as graphically educate listeners to the harsh realities of Nigerian politics back then and now.

‘’I met Fela in 1974,” Lemi explains. “The experience was very interesting. I was his best friend at that point in time. I was his youngest adviser. I was also his comrade-in-arms because we shared the same (social) ideology. As for my art for his covers I tried to think of what Fela was saying (musically) to form my own direction.”

Lemi has since designed 26 (now classic) covers for Fela’s chart-busting recordings such as “He Miss Road,” “Yellow Fever,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Sorrow, Tears, & Blood,” “Coffin for Head of State,” “Why Black Man dey Suffer,” “Everything Scatter,” “Black President” and many more between 1974 – 1992. Lemi worked with Fela until nearly the end.

Currently in New York for a few more weeks before returning home to Lagos, he is swamped with work commitments like designing a Fela publicity bus to promote the 2010 Tony-award winning Broadway play “Fela!” currently having a hit run at the Eugene O’ Neill Theatre.

The colorful bus by Fela’s longtime art designer will be parked at the showplace temporarily and travel to other varied New York sites by reservation. Schedules will be posted at the play locale.

Lemi says the play is scheduled to go on tour around October. At the end of the Fela bus excursion he says he is talking with sponsors to place the vehicle in a Lagos museum to further honor Fela’s memory.

As for “Fela!” on Broadway Lemi said he’s seen it 11 times! The first time he saw it he says he cried. “I was very impressed with the storyline, the presentation, the acting, (starring Sahr Ngaujah), everything.”

He further shared that “I was part of that story during that period of time in Lagos, Nigeria when I worked with Fela. The storyline did great justice. I really love the play.”

Prior to the bus project, Lemi squirreled away time to present several Fela-themed workshops to students in Harlem and in Portland, Maine. He also does similar student worshops in the Birmingham section of London and is now planning other trips back there and New York to present in Brooklyn.

“I love to do workshops,” he admits, “because I love to share my experiences with young people about my life, career, Fela and about Nigeria and cover art.”

And as if all that is not enough he recently launched a “new style for my art” called The Afrobeat goes On in the form of mixed media imagery. “Not the music”, he stesses, “but it is related to my Afrocentric views and all that.” His personal ‘brand’ after a hectic three-decade career now simply reads: Art’s Own Kind.