“I don’t see myself as a revolutionary, I’m an evolutionary.”
Nigerian artist Lemi Ghariokwu says that, although he worked closely and shared the same Pan African views with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, they had very different approaches to spreading their messages and their mission.
“I believe strongly that things need to be organised properly and for it to build up with time. But a revolutionary wants things to change immediately…
“All my heroes are revolutionaries. I get a lot of energy from what they do. I get inspiration, I get hope. The world has always been in a state of war, so to speak, so we need the warrior spirits. So, I love to collaborate like that as an evolutionary. So, it's complementary.”
After being introduced to Fela Kuti by journalist Babatunde Harrison, Ghariokwu was almost immediately given free rein to conceptualise, design and illustrate the ideas that would grace dozens of Kuti’s albums covers.
There was however, disagreement over two cover designs, for Sorrow Tears and Blood and J.J.D, the result of which was a deep fracturing in their relationship. As you’ll hear in the podcast, Lemi’s telling of the events gives us rare creative, cultural and personal insights into the dynamic bond between the visionary artist and the revolutionary musician.
Lemi Ghariokwu says he sees evidence of Fela’s legacy and the resonance of the messages in his music everywhere he goes.
“Fela made a lot of statements and they are very relevant to Nigeria today. Most of the things he stated 30, 40 years ago are playing out in 3D slow motion. And it’s unfortunate that Nigeria has not moved forward in the last 40 years.
“Let’s forget about cell phones and all that rubbish… our electricity is not constant! 2017! Can you imagine with all the money, and all the natural resources in Nigeria, we can’t have constant electricity? And there’s so much religiosity right now, so hypocrisy is stinking to the high heavens!”
The Kuti song that Lemi says speaks volumes about Nigeria today is ‘ODOO’ (Overtake, Don Overtake Overtake).
“It’s very Fela [in] character, he loves acronyms and plays on words. And it’s part of being an African, we are very expressive people, we use body language, actions. There are a lot of words in Africa, Nigeria especially, that are pronounced two times. In plain English it’s like saying ‘things have been overtaking, and overtaking and overtaking all over again!’
“In this song, Fela is talking about inflation rates going so high so fast. And in the last two years of this present government the [Nigerian currency] naira has been devalued so badly.
“In that song, Fela made an example of a civil servant on a paltry salary and he was aiming to buy a fan for his room because Lagos, Nigeria is very hot. He went to the store and the fan was maybe 70 units of money, by the time he had saved 70, the fan had become 120. By the time he got the money, the fan had become 200. He tried again, the fan went to 700 naira.”
Ghariokwu has his own personal experience of this. Not long ago, he was keen on purchasing an inverter (as backup for his generator) so he could have constant electricity for his apartment. Put off by the hefty price tag of 250,000 naira, Ghariokwu delayed buying the inverter. When he checked again it had gone up to 450,000. Three months later he finally forked out 670,000 naira for the inverter. So, he says with an exasperated chuckle, every time he hears ‘ODOO’, he’s reminded of the same struggles Fela sang about decades ago.
Despite this, Ghariokwu says he holds true to a vision of a better future for Nigeria and for Africa.
“People like me cannot leave, it’s my destiny,” he says. “I tell people, all Africans in the diaspora, ‘Please, whatever you’re going through, whatever your struggles, go through it for the sake of our future. You’ve got to come back home, we’ve have to build our place together. We cannot run from our problems and expect it to be solved’.
“Nigeria belongs to all of us so I cannot run away from that.”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Lemi Ghariokwu on Don't Look Back.