Into his thirties, John’s style of music is a bit of a salad as it fuses elements from different genres. It is this flexible approach that expands the span of his target audience.
John Pen has potential to become one of the most popular and commercially successful Malawian artists of his generation, thanks to his ability to straddle seemingly opposite worlds.
John successfully mixes poetry with music and is soulful enough for reggae audiences, but smooth enough for adult contemporary; sophisticated enough for adults, but sultry enough for younger listeners; strong enough in the face of heartbreak to appeal to women, but ravishing enough to nab the fellas. Wielding such broad appeal, Pen can easily convert his long string of hit singles into an album.
His usually encrypted message in the lyrics is what distinguishes him from the ordinary Malawian musician. Apart from the usual rhymes, John uses a spectrum of poetic tools such as alliteration, assonance and imagery.
His style is prominently Influenced by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka, Asa and Bob Marley.
John Pen often sings about world issues and politics; his tracks predominantly preach love, freedom and justice though he has been known to perform some playful songs as well.
Pen’s passion for the arts was latent for the most part of his life and only came to the fore recently when he met Taddja of Dikamawoko, producer Muhanya and Tereza Mirovicova who is an astute performer in her own right. John Pen collaborated with the trio in the track Topsy turvy which he composed during the week that Malawi lost its head of state in abrupt circumstances.
The sequence of events was alarming and Malawian citizens questioned the loyalties of some prominent people hence the chorus “What if now was yesterday, and things were the way they were then? Would I be what I am today or would I be what I was then?” The same chorus can also be interpreted in a different way where a grown up reminisces days gone by.
"My Nothing Song" is an inescapable masterpiece which essentially talks about nothing but on second thought you will agree that the underlying message is power packed. “The Dream Song” is a rendition of popular speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King and Haile Selassie II.
“My journey” and “Osadandaula” are tracks pregnant with metaphysical rhetoric which listeners adore for the lyrical depth and simplistic but highly artistic instrumentation.
“My Slave Song” which adopts a reggae approach laments the modern day slavery which manifests itself in ways different from the conventional human bondage; it tackles political, economic, social and spiritual slavery. “My Sad Story” is an afro beat which articulates a series of misfortunes befalling an unnamed person. Reading between the lines, one is able to draw meaning and attach the lyrics to real life.
The radio airplay accorded to the tracks is not commensurate with the quality of John’s songs and John is yet to make his mass media breakthrough. The very fact that John is not out to get commercial success has seen him shun overtures from the local media to promote him in exchange for unofficial and/or illegal gratification.
Perhaps it is this reluctance to “buy” popularity and success that has stunted the proliferation of his songs via radio stations though they continue to be hits in hundreds of cars countrywide and elsewhere.
John Pen’s work can be sampled at www.facebook.com/johnpenmw and www.urbanmalawi.com/johnpen.