Credit: Album artwork

The Cover Uncovered: The story behind The Roots' 'Things Fall Apart'

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere. The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” – W. B. Yeats

These lines from W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ appear to speak exactly what is occurring on the cover of the album for Things Fall Apart by The Roots. The title of the album was, incidentally, inspired by Chinua Achebe’s book of the same name, which came from ‘The Second Coming’ by Yeats. Even though the album does not explicitly refer to the political incidents happening when the album was conceived, the cover certainly speaks for itself.

Formed in 1987 in Philadelphia, The Roots released their first few albums, such as Organix, Do You Want More?!!!??!, Illadelph Halflife, but were not able to gain popular acclaim. Things Fall Apart, released in 1999, was the breakthrough album that really made the band visible in the late 1990s music scene and it featured some of their most popular tracks such as ‘You Got Me’, ‘The Next Movement’ and more.

The album cover, created by Kenny Gravillis, initially came with a choice of five different designs before one was settled upon. The cover that remained saw a photo of two black women running away from the police in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn during a riot in the 1960s. The fear and the anguish was palpable in the faces of the women. The photo was in monochrome, with only the title of the album “things fall apart” etched in red.

The stunning visuals, the choice of colours with “things fall apart” in blood red, and the plain, bold fonts for the rest of the cover put forth a hauntingly calm depiction of the resonant chaos within the picture. Gravillis said about the photo: “This became the main cover for a few reasons. The cover felt like the urban community could really relate to it. Seeing real fear in the woman’s face is very affecting. It feels unflinching and aggressive in its commentary on society.”

The other pictures used as the cover art for Things Fall Apart were also photos of a similar sentiment. The photo of a mob boss’ mutilated hand holding the ace card. It was ironic almost in the sense that it shows that good things don’t always follow even when you have the ace. Another picture included a bombed church. Gravillis said: “We weren’t specifically looking for bombings, but we came across this picture of the church, and it represented one of society’s biggest failures. As a country, we have the freedom to worship. This image represents a huge violation of that right.”

A fourth picture was taken in Shanghai’s South Railway Station in 1937. It represented the aftermath of Japanese warfare in China. It shows a baby, most likely abandoned, sitting in the midst of all the rubble and crying out. The final photo was also of a child, crying out of hunger. This image was taken in Somalia in the 1990s, as Kenny Gravillis commented: “While it was the most obvious cover, hunger is such a widespread epidemic that we felt like it needed to be included.”

Notice the word epidemic. Here we are, removed from a sense of normalcy, fighting our way through a pandemic — something we haven’t ever experienced before, certainly not to this extent. But hunger, poverty, discrimination — these are “epidemics” that are a reality for a majority of people around the world, throughout their lives.

With racial, sexual, religious, and class discrimination rampant in our society, with there being hundreds and thousands of people losing their lives to police brutality, with people being shunned because of religious or sexual identities, or basic rights being taken away from people on grounds that don’t even exist, do we even ask ourselves, why, out of all things, a music album cover released almost two decades ago still remains relevant? Perhaps, we already know the answer to that.

All the photos that were selected for The Roots’ Things Fall Apart album cover, portrayed a story – a story of violation of human rights, a story of fundamental necessities being usurped from adults and children alike, a story of destruction, a story of agitation, and a story of a possible revolution.