wax Poetics
Collection of covers from Nigerian 1970s music

Face the Music

Nigerian 1970s album covers reflected individual and national identities.

published online
By Immaculata Abba

On the cover of Geraldo Pino and the Heartbeats’ 1972 debut album, Afro Soco Soul Live, is a man breaking his chains. In the background are drums and people dancing. The cover announced its lead single: “Includes ‘[Blackman was] Born to be Free’.” Besides producing and composing the album, Geraldo Pino also co-designed the cover.

Five years before this debut, the Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti had seen the Heartbeats play in Accra, Ghana, and thought: “After seeing this Pino, I knew I had to get my shit together. And quick!” Pino was developing a powerful sound, an undeniable influence on the nascent soul/funk/Afrobeat scene in West Africa during the 1960s and ’70s. With lyrics like “I was born to do my own thing,” the debut had an urgent and compulsive beat with the light-speed pace of funk. For the impressive waves the band had made in the previous decade with its live performances across West Africa, this debut was signaling—in sound and visuals—a pivotal time not only in the Heartbeats’ career but also in Nigerian music.

Two years later, the cover of their next album, Let’s Have a Party, was a portrait of a woman sitting in an evening gown, wine glass in hand, afro blown out, chin up, gaze transfixed. Placed on a red background, the portrait is edited with an embossed filter such that the woman looks like a silver relief sculpture. To her left and right are simple illustrations of white clouds. The cover promises no small party, for no regular girls. The vibe was more leisure, less action. Global oil price shocks of 1973–1974 resulted in the most monumental transfer of wealth Nigeria has seen to date. Nigeria too was on the clouds—of an oil boom.

Album art to Geraldo Pino's Afro Soco Soul Live
Album art to Geraldo Pino's Afro Soco Soul Live
Album art to Geraldo Pino's Let's Have A Party
Album art to Geraldo Pino's Let's Have A Party

Whether or not you were familiar with Pino and the Heartbeats at the time, going to the record store and stumbling on this album cover meant you were seduced by this promise of a good time. That’s what cover art for albums and singles do: be a good wingman for the music. Nigerian music, now one of the country’s biggest cultural exports, may not need a wingman, but its accompanying visuals definitely expand our aesthetic experience of both the music itself and Nigerian society at large. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Wuruwuru’s cover bank of over 5000 album covers in Nigeria’s music history since 1950. The covers help us see not just the spirit of the music but also the ever-evolving textures of the soft belly skin of the Nigerian milieu. After all, these album covers were the images the people brought home to their living rooms, the images that lived on in the hearts of the people. 

This is an essay about those portraits that were used to sell music in the tumultuous, mercurial decade of the 1970s when Nigeria’s primary concern was the construction of national identity, the making and re-making of a country. What secrets about this national project did the musicians’ faces hold, just as their music did? How was the zeitgeist written on their bodies, the bodies with which they sang the songs of the people?

To understand the Nigerian 1970s, you’ll need a brief introduction to the 1960s which began with Nigeria —an imagined nation materialized by colonial audacity and arbitrary colonial borders–gaining its independence on October 1, 1960. Then came the conflicts arising from the tensions between the postcolonial image and the postcolonial reality: resources had to be allocated, margins drawn, power devolved and (re-)concentrated. Ethnic groups contested the economic and sociopolitical positions they had been allotted by colonial power. Eventually, this culminated in a civil war from July 1967 to January 1970. The war’s end was followed by General Yakubu Gowon’s 1970 “no victor, no vanquished” speech, a desperate and dishonest call for national reconstruction in the face of an oil boom. The 1970s opened with military rule grating the dignity out of an already-exhausted people.

In all of this, music was the water that carried Nigerians. Sure, daily bread was vital, but one did not live by bread alone, even during the war. “Music was very important during the war,” musician Renny Pearl said to Uchenna Ikonne in his book Wake Up You!. “You have to understand that most people had lost everything. Their entire lives were shattered. Music was the only thing keeping everybody’s spirits up […] People trekked on foot from miles away to come and see us. Popular groups like Hykkers and the Fractions made a lot of money during the war.”

As parts of the country—the South-East and South-South especially—rebuilt their economic, social, and physical infrastructure after the war ended in 1970, the military government was introducing new and exciting ways to confound the people’s understanding of the word “discipline.” The mid-’70s saw soldiers using horsewhips to flog erring motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike—on the command from above, of course. Imagine your father is driving you to boarding school from Ibadan to Lagos, and he pulls over a second too late at a military checkpoint. Soldiers jump down from their truck, and you watch them pull your father out of the car, slap and horsewhip him until he is left on the sizzling asphalt, crying in a fetal position. Fela made the 1977 hit song “Zombie” and LP of the same name based on the inhumanity and fervor with which the soldiers carried out brutal orders like this.

By then, the artist Lemi Ghariokwu had earned Fela’s trust and friendship and had become Fela’s go-to artist for his album cover commissions. For Zombie, Ghariokwu made a collage out of photographs of Fela and photographs from the year’s Independence Day military parade at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos. The cover shows Fela singing to the outsized heads of soldiers who are oblivious to his song, this obliviousness being the very thing he is singing about. This was an instance of the album cover doing more than just illustrating. The art on the sleeve became a prize in itself. As Ghariokwu himself later wrote: “[The image] told the story of life under an oppressive military dictatorship—and what it takes to come through it feeling that you’re still somehow in command of your destiny.”

Wax poetics

Ghariokwu was far from the only one making culturally significant album art. In Wuruwuru’s cover bank, I searched the covers of the 1970s looking for signs of war fatigue and the nervous condition of being under a dictatorship. It was not easy, but I found what I sought in the likes of Douglas Osakwe and the Abobokos’s eponymous LP (1978), Success Dance Band Obiaruku’s self titled album (1977), Joe Nez’s Enyim Ebekwala (1978), which translates to My Friend, [Please] Don’t Cry Again, and Fela’s Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971). 

But that I seldom found sorrow on the artist’s sleeves does not mean that the vast majority of musicians did not engage seriously with their suffering. Sometimes we chase sorrow by pursuing joy. Other times, we understand our sorrow. And always, music, like water, is in every living thing. Nigerians’ thirst for freedom and for peace could not be all that the music had to show.

Before I go on to what I saw on the covers beyond sorrow, I must say that this cover bank is not exempt from the definition of history as a re-collection of artifacts left by the ruling agenda-setting power. In this case, the socioeconomic agenda-setters were the record labels and the patriarchy. And so, just because the musicians represented in the cover bank and in this essay are predominantly male, it does not mean that music at the time was made predominantly by men. (If not for anything, again, music was simply the water carrying everything.) The art on these album covers was not necessarily representative of any “essence” of Nigerian musicians of the era. Rather, they tell a particular story of a particular slice of Nigeria’s music history of the 1970s. It is important that you don’t get carried away and take the part for the whole.

Microscope in hand, looking into what survived of this male-dominated music culture, I saw in the vinyl covers experiments at creating and manipulating stereotypes of respectability, class, and various ideas of modernity. These stereotypes presented themselves in the poise of the people whose faces and bodies were used to sell the music. The most tried image was the studio portrait, with the musician looking into the distance, announcing their presence with not much else for the viewer to hold. This was the portrait as an abridged CV, while the graphic design (usually around the portrait and the track list at the back of the sleeve) served as the artist’s manifesto, a cover letter of sorts.

Wax poetics

To be respectable, to have a strong, usually optimistic presence was important, especially for highlife musicians. Portraits of the musicians standing hands-akimbo, smiling, talking, or performing were go-to’s. Band names often summoned respect, as with Sir Shina Adewale and the Superstars International. But it wasn’t enough to call yourself a “superstar international.” With your album sleeve, you also had to look the part. The fashion was usually formal Sunday bests—I’m talking full agbada, three-piece suits, two-piece wrappers with a lace blouse and coral beads. That is, unless you were intent on passing the message that you are for the streets, as Victor Uwaifo did with his thirst trap on Suku-Suku Anytime. Or the message that you were for the church, as the Good Women Choir did with their nondescript, single-colored, single-fabric, loose-fitting long skirts and all-covering shirts. 

Other go-to’s: Hands up in a wave as in Chief Osadebe’s Ofe Di Uto (1976). Dreamy eyes as in Jacob Oluwole’s Message from London (1975). And, of course, the no-sweat-broken self-assurance of one’s swag, as in the photo of Godwin Ironbar standing by the sea, his good leg forward. Or in Ai-Jay’s close-up portrait: lips stained deep red, kohl-rimmed eyes, and an evasively seductive gaze, evasive enough that you do not consider the image too lewd for your children’s eyes but seductive enough that you anticipate her singing “Boy, I’m fine, I need your love tonight.

Typically, the more experimental the portrait, the more expressive. Look at the illustrated man shedding real tears on the cover of Gosa Idehen and the Struggling Men’s Money Yap Man (1978). Or Witch Doctor Maso who had a traditional face mask as the main face and his human face as a footnote on his 1975 album cover. The cover seems to say: address me by my spirit face first, this album is for those who recognise the spirit. Similarly, in Lemi Ghariokwu’s illustration for Fela’s Ikoyi Blindness (1976), metaphors of neglect and greed abound. You see the cover and you expect the music to caricature those in power. Before buying the record, you know that the music behind the cover takes sides and you know if you would be sung for or sung against.

Some eschewed the human face in the album-cover portrait entirely in favor of documentary or abstract visuals. Often, this signified a daring band, like St. Augustine using a candid (or possibly staged) cropped image of a shirtless man and an all but naked woman fighting on the cover of his album Ashawo Confusion (1976) that details his ashawo (prostitute) problems. Or Ayo Ajayi’s metaphorical illustration for Hubert Ogunde’s Olumona (1975)—a drawing of a messenger from the heavens whose entire body is a one-eyed face, a gong in one hand and his one-eyed gaze beaming at the African continent on the globe. The fervor and eccentricity of the illustration mirrored the vision and audacity of the multitalented Ogunde whose highly critical and political plays Strike and Hunger and Bread and Bullet spoke to the nation’s trials and tribulations in the 1940s and 1950s. Similarly, Ghariokwu’s abstract, futuristic album cover for People’s Law (1980) reflected the eccentric spirit of the mystical OFO the Black Company, an acid rock band that was selected to represent Nigeria (and won a gold medal) at the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in 1973.

Ultimately, looking at the representation of ideas and feelings, people, objects, fashion, and sex appeal used in the images, these covers show how Nigerians participated in [re-]constructing their individual and collective identities through music and imagery. These were the cultural codes that were used to show the market what it [should] want. Because, after all, the market does not know what it wants, it only consumes conviction: a strong stride, a firm handshake, a renowned smile, a daring aesthetic. 

These covers prove music sociologist Ian Inglis’s point: “The commercial world inhabited by the designers of album covers stresses not needs, but desires—the desire of the producer to sell, the desire of the purchaser to consume.” And what was the Nigerian public’s desire according to the portraits on these album covers? A good time, in spite of the times. A cause for respect, in spite of the indignity of military rule. Freedom to stretch beyond a postcolonial reality, to reinvent the postcolonial reality. A claim on time: I was here; this was the ache, this was the love, and this was the laughter.

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