Puff Johnson succumbed to cervical cancer last year. It was her first anniversary yesterday. For those who have never heard of the name, more so those born in the 1990s, she was one of the most beautiful, black women of R&B girl from the 1990s.
You can YouTube her popular song Forever More and sample her best track to date.
Her other single ‘Over and Over Again’ was the soundtrack of the mid-1990s drama ‘First Wives Club’. She is the sweet voice you hear in Tupac’s Me Against the World. She released her album first album, Miracle, in 1996. In 1997, she toured the Europe as the opening act for Michael Jackson and his nephews 3T (Whatever became of them?). All this happened when she was 24-25.
Despite this staggering, if phenomenon start, she never did quite anything remarkable in the way of music or venture into movies as it is the norm in America afterwards. Her Wikipedia page is brief, unlike the, pages of her contemporaries such as J Lo, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Mary J Blige who serenaded us with bubble gum crap in the 1990s.
But Puff Johnson was different. Despite her age, she sung with a rare mature voice devoid of the girlish excitement that would greet the scene when Monica, Brandy and Aaliyah broke into the surface. Her love songs were emotional, persuasive, and as a man made you feel romantic if you are into mushy stuff. Thing with 1990s R&B is that it was full of love, musical and songs were more creatively written than what Rihanna pukes out nowadays lately with her eerily, scary voice.
If you think I’m kidding, sample her ‘True Meaning of Love’ jam, which is my favourite song from that debut album. Imagine, if you are a man and a woman says such things to you? See why falling in love was easy back then. Nowadays, guys just screw.
I remember Puff Johnson, who was born Ewanya Johnson in Detroit, because I used to imagine that Puff was a male name, more apt for a rapper than a female singer. May be because of Puff Daddy. In the 1990s, my elder brothers used to buy tapes. Some of them were a collection of various great songs by different musicians. Now in retrospect, tapes had a surreal feel about them. DJs back then who compiled these things had a sense of music, unlike these days where they play a gospel song and switch to Bend Over by RDX without even warning you.
Back then you could buy a tape that had music by boy bands. For instance, you would have Backstreet Boys pitied against NSYNC and we would debate many days on end on which band was better. Alternatively, you would have music from the divas of the time and Celine Dion was the most preferred diva. Gosh! There were like 597 different permutations of her collections. Yet in one of those rare collections, there was that ‘Forever More’ single from Puff Johnson that I routinely believed there was an error in the spelling of her name or the song was inadvertently allocated to an erroneous Puff Johnson, a rapper or male artist.
Now, our neighbour was single mother of three who was an urbanite and listened to R&B. She was a teacher and one of those people so far ahead of themselves in that given time. We shared the tapes all the time. Her eldest daughter was one of those kids in the hood, who could speak fluent Swahili and Sheng, and in her we learned who was the latest musical sensation. Her mother, now deceased(bless her soul) once saved my life-story for another day. Now, for some inexplicable reason I will always associate Puff Johnson to that family that was torn apart by that death but glad they are holding it together. Hang in there folks.
Now, thankfully to the Internet, and Wikipedia to be specific, I can just check what my favourite musician has been up to. In the past we relied on newspapers and old magazines to know what your favourite star was up to. In the absence of these credible sources, we had to contend with a lot of hogwash such as; Tupac’s body was never found and it is not known if he truly died. This stupidity propagated in the village by the boys from towns was pervasive. They used to tell us that Tupac mentor’s Machiavelli had died and resurrected after 14 years and Tupac was pulling the same. These claims were further given credence by the numerous posthumous collabos. Lord, is there any American artist who has not had a posthumous collabo with Tupac? even the gay Elton John, who I still wonder if Tupa would have collaborated with him if he was alive.
The reason I’m saying all this is that when I joined campus, I was and still is an R&B person and I had more freedom enjoying the music that was rationed to me as a child. I dug through Wikipedia studying how each of my childhood star was fairing. Now, as children we thought stars were immortal and infallible. As adults, we discover that stars who did not handle their fame and fortune rightly ended up miserable as adults. How many times has Toni Braxton been declared bankrupt? How many of Jay Z and Dr Dre contemporaries are languishing in jail or wasting away in drugs and poverty? Did you know that Dionne Warwick is as broke and bankrupt, it is no longer news. This is despite decades of unparalleled success?
Anyway, a few years ago, I was listening to a mid-morning show on either Easy FM or one of the Radio Africa Group-mostly Classic 105 when a presenter, could have been Angela Angwenyi, Sheila Mwanyiga or Tina Kagia, did mention that Puff Johnson had moved to South Africa. In deed when I checked on Wikipedia, (Puff had a longer page on her then) and I did confirm that she had moved to South Africa and as the presenter had said, she was about to re-launch her musical career, or start a TV show. Or something. Her music is a common staple in our local radio stations, and Maina Kageni often plays her every so often. She was in South Africa because she had fallen in love instantly with the people of South Africa and had decided to move there.
I don’t why I had an obsession with her, but I kept checking on what she was up to and as regularly as possible I was digging on her. I had this secret, undeclared crush on her, come to think of it. I mean, she was beautiful even though disease would certainly waste her body in her last years.
And then 2012 came. I held a small party at my house and some well shaven, big-headed bugger with studs who happened by the party, you know those people who come from God-knows-where, plugged his flash-disk into my laptop and left a load of music in my laptop. Mostly, trashy rap from Rick Ross and new generation music. But he also left some old school numbers including a dozen songs from Men of Vizion who never became big locally and one of those boy bands whose songs are hard to come by. Their ‘Break Me Off’ jam has stayed on top of my play list like forever.
In the same collection were two or so songs from Puff Johnson. That April-May, I will try some stuff in Juba, South Sudan and it was a lonely experience. Despite the good company, the real warm people of South Sudan and the generosity with beer, I was very lonely. When things don’t go the way I want, I like sulking and can be mood and withdraw from the public. But I enjoyed the music and replayed a Puff Johnson song that for some strange reason, I can’t really remember what song it was. But I must have replayed it a thousand times for the two months, I was there. I kept checking what she was up to down in SA, but there were no updates on Wikipedia.
I came back to Kenya briefly, before venturing out for the rest of 2012. I came back for Christmas in 2012 and kept checking on her. I can’t remember when I stopped digging on her. What I know is that a month or so ago as Maina Kageni was about to exit his morning show, he said that he was going to play a song “from a lady who unfortunately is no longer with us’ and I wondered who that might be? Whitney Houston? No that, he always says her name up-front . Angela Chibalonza? Nope, it has been quite some time since she passed on. Who?
Then, he played a some love song, ‘Please Help I’m Falling in Love’, to be precise. Frankly, I had never been keen on that particular song. Should have been the first time I was hearing it as well. Then at the end he reminisced how Zain Verjee had first introduced him to the song back when they worked at Capital FM. And then he said, Puff Johnson had died and didn’t state the reason. For a moment, I thought she must have died recently, from an accident.
Then I took to Wikipedia quickly, only to learn that Puff did die last year on June 24th. I felt cheated. It is like learning about the sickness or the death of that good friend that you never checked on for quite some time, long afterwards. You hate yourself. I could not believe that it had been a year since I last checked on her. I felt that I had betrayed her and myself. Her death was not widely publicized and just a few South African newspapers wrote briefly about her death. No wonder.
Apparently, all along Puff Johnson had tested positive with cervical cancer. Five years ago, she lost her boyfriend to an accident of sorts back in States. In South Africa, she had dated some musician we don’t know on these shores and at some point, she was deported back to America, owing to some visa problems even though I’m not sure if she stayed a little bit longer. I also, gather that at some point a Cancer Fund was set up for her. Don’t how much they collected but she died at a tender age of 40 and I have never been so preoccupied with the death of a stranger so much.
Her songs like many good songs on Youtube hardly surpass 80,000 views. Actually many have less than 30,000 views a very poor reflection considering the kind of fame she enjoyed back then. It breaks my heart that Rihanna can shout anything and twerk nakedn and overnight the song will have 232, 335 679 views and a surpass a billion mark later.
In the comment section, apparently there were many fans who felt her loss and you can check what people who appreciate great music have to say about her music.
The reason for this long tribute to the beautiful soul, is that music plays a significant role to the memories we posses. My girlfriend once told me that the reason why it is sometimes difficult to move on is that you sometimes encounter the song you used to play or listen together and the memories come flooding back. You will remember that song you danced with your crush when you bumped into her in a club, before her not so handsome boyfriend fetched her. That song you danced to in Kampala, Kisumu or Mombasa or any other town you have been to and enjoyed its nightlife.
Personally, I first heard a ragga version of BoB ‘Airplanes playing in a Juba bound bus, traversing the Kampala-Juba road at night which is a deathly experience. Given Ugandans like their music, half the music playing was either in Kiganda or any of the numerosu languages in Uganda. The bus was full of sweaty and dark folks, mostly Ugandans and South Sudanese. I was the lone Kenya in between with the usual stupid entitlement even though I was the same bus annoyingly called Bakulu. BoB was the only song that I anticipated every time the playlist repeated itself, it was good relief and the way the kid rapped. Even though the song was already two years too old, I was hearing it for the first time. And now, whenever I hear the song, that dark journey springs back to mind.
Music and smell are two things that can evoke the best and the worst of memories. You always remember how your ex smelled when dirty and when s/he was clean and fresh as mint. Whatever it is, I know you too have certain songs that ignite the happiest and the saddest memories. Music soothes. Music heals. Music cheers. Music hurts. Music excites.
I always wonder how some guys go their entire lives without a sense of music.