We don’t talk about album art enough. Although often seen as an expendable element of musical production, album artwork often offers a deeper visual element to an auditory creation. The relationship between music and artwork is symbiotic in the sense that they both inform each other: just as a drawing or photograph is a reflection of its creator’s influences, ideals, and current state of mind, album art reflects the personality of the artist and the tone of their music, as well as the era in which the album is set.
By creating strong visual associations with the album, a mood and tone is set for the listener, as well as a clarification of the artistic intent behind the body of work. While it may be valid to say that album covers no longer have any grand significance, the art remains a vital space to grab attention, contextualize a song, or tell the story of a whole album. Album art represents the artist and is there at every point as a casual listener becomes a super fan. Many of our Nigerian musical predecessors understood the importance of cover art, and despite technological constraints, went to great lengths to produce distinctive and timeless album art that has stood the test of time and is still aesthetically appealing and relevant today.
Thus, in no particular order, we have compiled a list of some of our favorite works of album art from back in the day that we hope you enjoy, too:
Fela Kuti – Yellow Fever
This list simply wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Fela Kuti and his legendary cover art selections. Teeming with character, color, and bursts of vivid activity, Fela’s riotous covers are instantly recognizable anywhere, thanks to Lemi Ghariokwu — the visionary behind much of the art. Like the music itself, the covers are socially conscious and politically charged, calling out everything from corruption, police brutality, skin bleaching, and other evergreen subjects in an eye-catching mix of photography, paint, and illustration.
Designed in 1976, the Yellow Fever cover stands out as a straight-in-your-face depiction of misinformed African beauty, with the points of emphasis including the bad effect the bleach has on the face and backside. Produced at a time when bleaching creams were gaining popularity across the continent, the artwork acted as an admonition to African women who were, and in some cases, still are, fond of using bleaching creams to lighten their complexions. In an interview, Ghariokwu explained how he used a life model for the work, showcasing a typical ‘offending’ cream in the top-left corner of the cover art. “‘Soyoyo Cream Skin Bleacher’ was actually my own creation. The word soyoyo is a Yoruba expression for ‘bright and glow’! I painted in the price tag of 40 naira which was high end for a cream, and yet so harmful to beauty and the psyche of African women.”
When it comes to impact and high-quality storytelling, Fela’s album covers never disappoint.
Lijadu Sisters – Horizons Unlimited
Often described as a “true summertime album”, Horizons Unlimited was the Lijadu Sisters’ fifth and final body of work. Released in 1979, the album comprised six powerful songs and the twins’ signature psychedelic sound. Featuring a clear and uncluttered background, the album’s cover consists of a long stretch of painted road, muted colors, and the sisters’ identical smiling faces placed just on the horizon (in collage style), as if to suggest that the long road ahead is indeed bright and unlimited.
The Lijadu Sisters (consisting of identical twin sisters Taiwo and Kehinde) were a popular staple of the Nigerian music scene in the mid-60s to 80s. As rare female bandleaders in Nigeria at the time, they stormed through to the forefront of the male-dominated music scene, pioneering their own brand of Afrobeats. Sometime after the release of the album, a reporter once asked them about their plans for the future, now that their horizon was opening up. Their response was simple, hopeful, and straight to the point, much like the accompanying artwork itself: “we don’t always look beyond our noses, because man proposes but God disposes of; but we are optimists”
Joni Haastrup – Wake Up Your Mind
Born in Sierra Leone, but raised among Nigerian royalty, Joni Haastrup remains one of Nigeria’s most prolific musicians, playing his part in the country’s highlife, rock, Afrobeat, and disco scenes throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. His 1978 solo debut album, Wake Up Your Mind features a simple yet striking cover that sees the artist sitting cross-legged and in a pensive mood, seemingly calling on all who listen to wake up their minds. Despite his energetic performances, hot rhythms, and socially-conscious lyrics, Haastrup’s vocals have an understated quality to them, and it is this same mindful humility that shines through in the minimalistic album art.
Although he has remained relatively (and sadly) unknown, Haastrup has been described by many as being ahead of his time, and never shy about his ambitions to transcend the conventional ideas of what an African musician should look, think or sound like.
Celestine Ukwu – No Condition Is Permanent
“Meanwhile, Celestine himself sang as he stood coolly onstage in a black turtleneck and a sportscoat, looking like a university professor. The message was clear: this was not necessarily music for dancing — even though the rhythms were compelling enough. This was music for the thinkers.” — Uchenna Ikonne
Poised, philosophical, and always graceful in his delivery, Celestine Ukwu’s sound is as distinct as this album cover. Beginning in the early 1970s, his band, The Philosophers National, established a radical shift in the possibilities of Nigerian highlife by moving away from the typical mid-century style and producing, instead, a highlife experience that was more refined and contemplative. As with many of the group’s other album covers, No Condition Is Permanent boasts of a vivid blend of yellow, orange, and red, capturing the band members in various stages of practice and performance. The overall impression is that of hope, warmth, and camaraderie — all of which carry through into the music.
Onyeka Onwenu – African Woman
Long before any other stallion made it onto the music scene, Nigerians had Onyeka Onwenu. Popularly known by many as the Elegant Stallion, the veteran artist is one of Nigeria’s first ladies of song. Released in 1987, Onwenu’s African Woman cover is a testament of her grace, allure, and obvious beauty as a young upcoming artist at the time. The closely cropped hair and rounded facial features are reminiscent of a young Nina Simone, and the silk scarf adds a touch of soft elegance, perhaps subtly alluding to the silky-smooth timbre of her voice. However, it is the cowrie-shell headpiece that serves as a timeless reminder that this is not just any young star, but a proudly African one.
King Sunny Ade And His African Beats – Synchro System
The early to mid-80s was a defining year for Afropop and juju music as a whole, and King Sunny Ade, with his memorable staged acts and rejuvenating dance steps, was front and center of this movement.
Following the success of his 1982 album titled Juju Music (which was an international hit, peaking at #111 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart despite being almost entirely sung in Yorùbá), his next album, Syncro System earned him his first Grammy Award nomination. Set against a clean white backdrop, the album cover depicts the members of his band, each striking a unique pose and holding their respective instruments. The cover seems alive with activity and the suggestion of dance. But despite being a rather “busy” piece of art, it still manages to remain uncluttered and easy on the eye, making it an immediate favorite.
Lagbaja – C’est Un African Thing
Released in 1996, Lagbaja’s C’est Un African Thing is an eclectic anthology of songs that is able to blend jazz elements (afrobeat-influenced saxophones), electronic rhythms, and local styles such as soukous and highlife together. Thus, the cover art seems fitting, as it shows the enigmatic, masked star with his trusty saxophone by his side and the buzz of Lagos traffic in the background. Here is a cover that easily piques one’s interests, giving you a glimpse into the creative and eccentric mind of the artist, while promising a unique listening experience all at the same time.