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The Incredible Stories Behind Lemi Ghariokwu's Iconic Fela Kuti Album Covers

Nigerian artist Lemi Ghariokwu reveals the incredible stories behind his highly-political Fela Kuti album.



Today marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of Fela Kuti. In remembrance, we're revisiting this article with his trusted collaborator Lemi Ghariokwu, who created the large majority of Fela's album covers.

Nigerian artist, illustrator and graphic designer Lemi Ghariokwu is the creative force behind 26 of Fela Kuti's album covers. His highly-political artwork paired illustration and collage with acute social realism, becoming a crucial visual accompaniment to Fela's anti-establishment records.

Lemi's covers are instilled with social commentary and, like the afrobeat legend's songs, they directly call out government corruption, political oppression, police brutality, skin bleaching and much more. We called up Lemi at his home in Lagos to get the story behind seven of his iconic Fela album covers.

In following pages, Lemi describes the vision, work, and occasional fights behind the covers for Fela's Alagbon Close, Everything Scatter, Fear Not For Man, Sorrow Tears And Blood, Yellow Fever, JJD and Beasts Of No Nation in his own words.

Read Lemi's incredible Fela stories ahead.

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Alagbon Close (1974)

Alagbon Close laid the foundation for what I was going to do for Fela through the years. I didn't illustrate his lyrics literally in my cover artwork, but showed my own take on what Fela was trying to express. My art was a supplement to the music.

It was a bit spiritual. I'd just met Fela a couple of months before this cover—my first Fela cover, by the way. Before I met him I'd done my version of the album Music Of Fela Roforofo Fight. When the opportunity, came to do Alagbon Close I cut out the image of Fela I had on my original Roforofo and ended up pasting it to complete that Alagbon cover. It's like a little collage, but there's no evidence (laughs).

Roforofo Fight was about a fight in the mud, so I illustrated Fela dancing on a swamp. For Alagbon Close, when I was doing the imagery, I thought that image of Fela dancing on mud would also work as him dancing on the police.

For me, the album cover expresses the victory of good (Fela) over evil (the police). The whale capsizes the police boat, so nature helps Fela defeat them. On the left, Fela's house Kalakatu Republic is standing on solid rock and the police jailhouse is on fire on the right.

When Fela saw the cover, the first thing he said was, “Wow, God damnit!"

—Lemi

Everything Scatter (1975)

Because I'm self-taught, my style is eclectic. Fela allowed me to express myself the way I wanted. Sometimes I'd go to an exhibition, see a style I liked, and try it on the next cover.

For this one, I decided to do a photo collage. I included pictures of Fela's brilliant children on the back sleeve because I was deeply involved with his youth movement Young African Pioneers. We interacted with the audience, and people wondered if he had children, so we felt it was an opportunity to put it on the back album cover. It also includes pan-African heroes Fela mentions on the record's B-Side like Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah.

For the front, I was interested in the branding I'd seen from reggae music—on album covers by The Wailers, Bob Marley, Island Records, and so on—so I read up on everything and used this cover to brand Fela.

—Lemi

Fear Not For Man (1977)

At that point in time, Fela's sound was burning. I was scared. A lot of people were scared for Fela's life. Fear Not For Man is very short, very blunt, it expresses fearlessness through few lyrics.

I used a photograph by Tunde Kuboye, I loved its black-and-white effect which made Fela look bold and defiant while blowing the saxophone. I then painted over it with ecoline, which gives it that blood effect. Since Fela was advocating for people to be fearless, I cut out images of many Nigerian faces for the lettering of the title.

On the back cover, I made a comment so people could see my point of view. I quoted Kwame Nkrumah saying “Practice without thought is blind; thought without practice is empty."

—Lemi

Sorrow Tears And Blood (1977)

I have goosebumps. This cover broke my relationship with Fela for 8 years. There were actually two covers: the first one was a black-and-white photo of Fela, which was the originally published cover.

I was 23 at the time and me and Fela had some personal issues. Our egos were clashing. When I presented Fela my art for Sorrow Tears and Blood he saw it as an opportunity to clip my wings. He thought I was getting too big for my shoes so he lampooned the piece (laughs). He remonstrated with me. I was heartbroken, started crying and left his place. I told my colleagues, "I'm not coming to Fela's house again." I was so hot and I had reason: I didn't need to be treated that way. So Fela had a colleague of mine do an impromptu cover (the black-and-white cover).

I held on to my cover for 25 years. In 2003 it was used on the book cover for Fela: From West Africa To West Broadway. So the artwork that Fela rejected in 1977, and I held on to because I was convinced of my work, ended up on the cover of a book. When that happened, I looked up in the sky and said, "Fela, where are you? Come see now."

I spoke with Knitting Factory Records' Brian Long and told him that I wanted it on the cover of the new reprint of Sorrow. So by 2010, 32 years later, my cover ended up back on the cover of the album. I had my victory (laughs).

The cover is very dear to me because I was with Fela the night that inspiration came for the song. That's why it was painful that Fela rejected it. That night of June 16, 1976 we were visiting Fela's first wife Remi Kuti, and his children Femi, Yeni and Sola. It was Femi's birthday. As we sat in the living room, the 9PM news came on that students in Soweto had been shot by police and were killed—this was during apartheid. They were forcing the African students to learn Afrikaans, some students refused and the police went and shot them. As the news came on we all said, "This is crazy." For the rest of that week we discussed it a lot and Fela composed "Sorrow."

—Lemi

Yellow Fever (1977)

This title came from observations in the Kalakuta Republic. Fela was very observant and the 80 or so people that lived in Kalakuta would go out on the streets and come back with news, stories—juicy stuff. They'd also come up with different terminologies, Kalakuta slang for things.

African women were bleaching their skin and, from Fela and Kalakuta's perspective, when people bleach themselves they're a brilliant yellow color. It reminded them of the sickness called yellow fever, so Fela decided to write a tune to castigate women and tell them that bleaching is not good for them.

Being a pan-African, I always feel upset to see African women bleach skin and straighten their hair. So I saw an opportunity to express that vividly on the cover. I decided to do it minimalist and direct. I found a model in Kalakuta called KorKor. She modeled but she didn't bleach her skin so I had to add that in. I was hoping the other residents of Kalakuta wouldn't recognize her in the painting but when I showed it to them all the girls jumped; "that's KorKor!"

I put the price of the bleaching cream, called 'Soyoyo,' in the painting to show people how much they spent if they bought it. 40 Naira was quite a lot of money then. I also made the butt, upper lips and parts of the breasts of the model dark to show that there's no way the cream could cover it all. To me, there's nothing sensual about this cover.

—Lemi

JJD (1977)

This was the first time Fela ever rejected my work (the second was for Sorrow Tears and Blood). Unlike Sorrow, I won the battle for JJD. The lyrics for JJD (Johnny Just Drop) disparages Africans who travel abroad and come back with Western mannerisms and dress in a Western style. It's Fela's take on JJC (Johnny Just Come), somebody who's fresh in town.

I strongly thought that I needed to address the youth with this cover, because the older folks, we can let them be. Some of them are near their graves already. For the back of the original cover I used a young man in denim jeans, a USA flag tie and 'I Love New York' and 'Jesus Saves' buttons dropping from an aircraft. It was an oil painting that took me 2 weeks.

I took it to Fela and to my surprise he asked me why I was attacking the youth with my art. Fela didn't want the youth to feel like they were being attacked. He preferred to attack the bourgeois. So he told me that I should do a bourgeois man that drops from the sky in a parachute and is the laughing stock of the people.

It was the only time ever that Fela gave me a concept for my covers and the first time he rejected my artwork—I was not pleased at all. So I agreed and made Fela's concept of the cover but when I finished I told the managing director of the record company, without Fela knowing, that it was going to be a double sleeve album.

When the cover came back the managing director sent for me to see the final product, then he told me go show it to Fela. I went to Fela's place and showed him the front cover and told him, "This is yours." Then I turned it around to the back and told him "This is mine." Fela's eyes went popping. He shouted “Lemi!" He said, "You hit below the belt man" and I ran out of the house.

I came back later and Fela looked at me from the corner of his eyes and just grinned, like he was thinking, “This boy... you're too smart."

—Lemi

Beasts Of No Nation (1989)

That's the monster cover. Our current Nigerian president is on that cover.

I had broken away from Fela so I was on my own, but once in a while Fela's younger brother—who was handling his business when he went to jail—would send me a letter of invitation to have me listen to an album that could use a cover. One of those was Beasts Of No Nation.

I listened to the song and loved it, so I picked out the elements I needed to express several world leaders as bloodsucking beasts with fangs and horns. I was bold enough to put those leaders there. I even added Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko who's not even in the lyrics. You should've seen Fela's face when he saw the artwork. He was grinning and saying “Lemi you crazy!"

General Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon are shown in the cover art but Margaret Thatcher, P.W. Botha and Reagan are the most prominent. Even when Thatcher died, the same day she died, I got two emails asking if I still had the same impression of her from this cover. I said "Yes, my impression hasn't changed."

—Lemi

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Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

'The Spread' Is the Sex-Positive Kenyan Podcast Offering a Safe Space for Women and LGBTQIA+ Issues

'The Spread' is the podcast dedicated to "decolonizing" the way Africans talk about sex and sexuality, say it's creator Karen Kaz Lucas.

Karen Kaz Lucas is the revolutionary brainchild behind Africa's best-known sex positive podcast, The Spread. Three years in, the 52 podcast episodes, covering a range of diverse topics including: The Male-Female Pleasure Gap, Sex positive parenting, LGBTQIA+ issues, Kink, Reproductive Rights, and Porn vs. Reality, has listeners ranging from 6,000 to 21,000 and episode on SoundCloud.

Recently, The Spread had its first major event TheSpreadFest, a day-long event attracting over 600 people with diverse panels, workshops and more. It's been hailed as a truly safe and inclusive space for people of all sexual identities. Okayafrica contributor, Ciku Kimeria speaks to The Spread creator Kaz on her journey to decolonize sexuality, her motivation, and her hopes for the continent relating to matters of sex and sexuality.

Read the conversation below.

Karen Kaz LucasImage courtesy of 'The Spread'

What made you start The Spread podcast?

It was to address the key gaps in discussions around sex and sexuality and to create a safe space to discuss them. Younger people were either learning about sex from porn or on the flip side from a religious standpoint or the education system, where the focus is on the risks of engaging in sex (teen pregnancy, STIs etc). As such they were either getting information from a fear-based system, shame-based system or porn that has very little to do with real life sexual situations and intimacy. I wanted to create a safe space where people could talk about all issues related to sexuality but in an open, accepting and enlightening way. For me, this is an informal form of sex education that allows people to explore their sexuality from an unbiased perspective—no judgement, no shaming.

What's the reception been like so far?

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. I had no idea that the podcast would grow and be as successful as it is now. People are hungry to meet similar people and have discussions without judgement. Of course, there are also people who react negatively to my work and say that this is a result of "Western influence." To those people, I say that they should know that the majority of my work is focused on decolonizing sexuality.

Great transition. I first saw the term "decolonizing sexuality" in your Instagram bio. What exactly does that mean?

Prior to Western intrusion, we already had our own sexual culture. I'm trying to remind people that certain things we embrace as "African" and defend when it comes to sex and sexuality, are elements that came to us through religion, Westernized education etc. The shame associated with sex and sexuality on the continent are remnants of Western teachings.

Prior to colonization many ethnic groups had religious healers who were neither considered male nor female but were gender fluid or intersex. There were ethnic groups that didn't base gender on anatomy but on energy. Gender fluidity on the continent was observed even more than you would find in the most liberal country right now. For some, you could physically have male features but possess female energy and live as a woman. Some people worshipped androgynous or intersex deities and believed that the perfect human being is both male and female. Certain tribes did not ascribe a gender to anyone until the age of puberty. In other communities, their priests were transgender, and they were the only ones who could conduct certain spiritual ceremonies. There is evidence that for several ethnic groups gay and lesbian relationships were not taboo. Unfortunately, a lot of this history has not been publicized or it is being revised as it does not fit in well with the idea that the continent is trying to now uphold as a patriarchal, heteronormative society. That is why the work of decolonizing sexuality is extremely important as we now have a generation that is open to questioning themselves. The generation of our parents lived in a time of oppressed and suppressed sexuality (among other things) as they themselves or their parents had suffered the colonial rape and pillage [both literally and metaphorically] of their lives. All they could carry was anger and fear. To survive they had to conform to what the oppressor enforced on them through religion, western education etc.

[Recently deceased] Kenyan writer and gay activist, Binyavanga Wainaina clearly outlines how it is only former British colonies that have anti-sodomy laws, which came during colonial times from the fear that British soldiers and colonial administrators would be corrupted by the natives while they were away from their wives. The law, the fears by the British government at the time, really are proof that some of the natives were already practicing sodomy.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What for you is the link between sex positive work and women's empowerment?

The average person might think that the type of work I'm doing is frivolous, but the reality is that when a society believes they have any right over women's bodies, we see all the terrible things that happen to women: rape, rampant femicide, violence against women and more. Reclaiming your sexuality as a woman is about asserting your own authority over your body—declaring the right to fulfilling, consensual sex of your own liking, the right to having children, or not having children if you don't want to, postponing or terminating a pregnancy. Once we accept the policing of women's bodies, it's a slippery slope.

Feminism is about women having equal rights and opportunities as men, and that also extends to their sex lives. My body, my choice. For those who are always ready to bash feminism, seeing it as women somehow trying to take over, dominate men, oppress men etc. They should realize that the only reason feminism exists, is because we live in a patriarchal world. Women are at the bottom of the rung, oppressed in thousands of ways. All we are trying to do, is get the same rights that men take for granted. Of course, to the ones who hold power, it will feel like a loss of power.

This is the reason why the topics we cover span everything from women's sexual pleasure to gender-based violence to LGBTQIA+ rights to women's reproductive health. All these discussions must happen in tandem.

Let's talk about the state of affairs in Kenya around various key issues, starting with female reproductive rights.

I'm working very closely with two organizations working on women's reproductive rights and abortion rights. The problem in Kenya is that there is so much misinformation. I plan to release a video very soon on the topic. I only recently found out all public hospitals in Kenya provide post-abortal care. Even though, abortions are illegal except in certain circumstances, post-abortal care is available throughout the country. Lack of information makes women especially vulnerable to the influence of quacks, back-alley doctors, or police who threaten them with imprisonment if they don't pay exorbitant bribes. The Kenyan law is that you are not allowed to administer an abortion unless the health of the mother or child is in danger. Health also includes mental health. As such, people with severe depression or suicidal thoughts do legally qualify for abortions, but most people don't know this.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What about on the issue of sexual violence against women and children?

Sexual violence against women and children isn't taken as seriously as it should be. Sensitivity training across police stations is still lacking. Rape is extremely underreported in the country as most people don't expect to be treated with discretion, sensitivity or any consideration once they do get into the system. I did a whole video series years back interviewing female rape survivors and their experiences highlight the challenges with our police system including the trivialization of the crime by police officers who consider rape almost routine, given how often this happens. The statistics are masking the issue, rape survivors don't know who to turn to and feel completely isolated. The issues of male sexual violence against men isn't even spoken about as the survivors fear further shunning and stigmatization from society. Kenya doesn't yet have the right structures—including mental health structures—to deal with the normalization of rape and sexual violence against women.

In 2015 three men gangraped a teenage girl as she was on her way home from her grandfather's funeral. After the attack, they dumped her in an open sewer, leaving her with a spinal injury that has confined her to a wheelchair. When the men were taken to the police station, their punishment was to cut the grass around the police station. The incident made it to the news, sparking international outrage, resulting in a signed petition and leading to protests in the country demanding #justiceforliz. As a result, the men were eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. While we can celebrate this particular win, it also makes us reflect on all the other hundreds of thousands of cases, where the survivors remain silent or seek justice, but never get it.

What about LGBTQIA+ rights?

The definition I adhere to for this group is actually a longer, more confusing acronym, but also one I hope makes more people feel included. LGBTQQIAPPK, which is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual & transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, polyamourous, pansexual and kink.

We have some cause for celebration, but also a very long way to go. We were hopeful recently when the High Court reviewed the key law banning gay sex, but unfortunately, they chose to uphold it. Last year, we did have a small win when the courts deemed unlawful the use of forced anal exams to test whether two men had sex.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights commission of Kenya are doing a really great job in trying to get colonial era penal codes repealed. They are the legal team behind the court cases for the repeal of these laws. From a legal standpoint it's great, but from a social standpoint, it's still so sad that our binary understanding of gender is tied to what the colonizers forced on us. The worst argument is when people say that any deviation from the heteronormative narrative is "un-African." My question then is "Do you really know your history? Are you willing to educate yourself and to take off the yoke of colonialism and even consider the idea that what you consider normal is based on systems that came to you through oppression and repression?

For a country that is so progressive in many ways, this particular issue still remains an uphill battle.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What about women's sexuality, sexual pleasure?

All the events we have are 95% women. Men are scared to admit they might not know it all. Society paints them to be macho and [makes them think] that they should somehow know it all, but they are scared to learn about their sexuality as they feel that it will take away from their masculinity. For women, it's empowering. Men are frightened about women learning and embracing their sexuality.

I want to be a part of this revolution, spearheading it on the continent.

Finally, tell us about The Spread Fest and your plans for it?

Our objective for the festival is to foster learning, inspiration and wonder—and to spark conversations that matter. The aim is to be more empathetic about our diversity, but also to leave people knowing more about sex and sexuality. This year we had 600 people in attendance, 5 panels, one workshop and it was a full day event. Next year, we plan to double everything.

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Photos by Getty Images for BET.

Africa at the BET Awards 2019: Dispatches from the Blue Carpet

We talked to Burna Boy, AKA, DJ Cuppy and more about representing their people and remembering Nipsey Hussle.

We were at the 19th annual BET Awards this past Sunday to check out the ceremonies and chat up the international artists walking the blue carpet.

BET is the world's biggest platform for Black music and it has officially gone global. If you've never been, there's a feeling of organized chaos in the air that makes you feel like you're a part of something big. Artists from Africa and the diaspora have come a long way at the award show—once relegated to a non-televised role, the "Best International Act" award is now part of the 3-hour televised main ceremony for the second year.

This year the nominees contained many of OkayAfrica's favorites, including this year's winner, Burna Boywhose award was accepted by his mom, with a message of connectedness to the continent: "Remember you were Africans before you became anything else."

READ: The Internet Doesn't Know Mama Burna At All

Held at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, the BET Awards hosted over 30 artists from the African continent. We caught up with many of them on the blue carpet including AKA, DJ Cuppy, Mr Eazi, Nomzamo Mbatha and Monalonga Shozi just to name a few. Under the June heat, African performers, presenters and nominees came to show out.

One of the big themes of the night was honoring slain Eritrean-American hip hop star Nipsey Hussle's life and legacy.

Burna Boy and Stefflon Don at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

When we asked him about it on the blue carpet, Burna Boy—dressed in an elegant Dolce and Gabbana two piece ensemble in emerald green and golden overtones—says:

"You never stop wanting to hear the work of black artists do you? After Nipsey's death, it was both an inspiration and a wake up call. This is the time to spread positivity and love because you never know man, you could be gone tomorrow. He left behind a great legacy and we're just going to carry it forward."

"Nipsey's death was really felt all over Africa," South African personality Mbatha tells us. Dressed in an original full floor length A-line dress made by South African designer Loin Cloth & Ashes, she remembers, "It wasn't just that he was an African, which he was, but he showed us that we still have flames in our community that we hope will never burn out. Thank God that flames like Nelson Mandela lived for as long as it has, because each generation picked up that flame and was able to believe we can make it out and when we do make it out, we can fight to make other people's lives better."

Nomzamo Mbatha at the 2019 BET Awards 2019. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

AKA at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

South African rap superstar AKA tells us just before the opening to the ceremony, "With me coming from South Africa, BET is all about black excellence and of course Black excellence is all about Africa. Everybody is on a wave right now recognizing the importance of African culture and the importance of where it comes from. Africa is the source of Black excellence."

The Nigerian Afro-fusion star Mr Eazi, another Best International Act nominee also met up with us outside. "As long as music is being made by Black people, African people will never stop being brilliant," he told us. "Most of the people from Africa that come to the BET Awards, about a good 60 percent come from Nigeria. I feel like this needs to be a Nigerian awards show. Maybe next year we'll just buy it up and make it a Nigerian show."

Mr Eazi at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

DJ Cuppy at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

Nomalanga Shozi at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET

Another big Nigerian name, DJ Cuppy, acted as a blue carpet host. "When I travel around the world," she says, "I feel like people are more invested in their roots. People are more engaged with where they come from and where they families come from and they're interested in learning about other cultures like never before."

"I'm all about taking Africa to the world but it think its just as important to bring the world back to Africa," Cuppy continues. "It's important that we're stressing connecting and do what we can to keep a strong community and making sure people know that we're all in this together."

TV personality and actress, Nomalanga Shozi tells us, "You have to recognize yourself as who you are. Honor yourself first then you can project that to the world. I think it's very important for us to honor ourselves and the BET Awards does that is such a grand fashion every year."

In the BET International section of the blue carpet, Nigeria-native Alex Okosi, the head of BET International shared a final thought on the important of awards shows. "It's a platform to elevate our people," he says. "Being able to showcase to the world our true power which is the power of Black culture is as important now then ever before."

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Seba Kaapstad Is the Genre-Bending South African Jazz Band Spreading a Message of Optimism

We speak to two of the quartet's members about their latest album 'Thina.'

This profile is part of OkayAfrica's ongoing series on South Africa's new wave of young artists shaping the future of the country's music scene. You can read more profiles and interviews here.

Thina, Seba Kaapstad's sophomore album, is an anomalous body of work that smudges the lines between genres effortlessly. It's a huge departure from the South African four-member jazz group's debut album, 2016's Tagore's. "We are people that are genuinely interested in music and the impact that music has, and we are people that love to experiment and explore," says group member Zoë Modiga. "With Pheel (the group's newest member) hopping onto the band for production, it created so much more color than there was before."

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