Rapper and actor Kema Sikazwe on I, Daniel Blake and new musical Shine

Newcastle rapper Kema (Kay) Sikazwe broke into the film industry when Ken Loach cast him in the Palme d’Or winning film I, Daniel Blake. Keema is now making his stage debut with his autobiographical new musical Shine 

Your big break was as China in I, Daniel Blake. How did director Ken Loach find out about you and did you audition for the part?

I was with an Extras agency (NE14TV) at the time. I would take every job offered to me as I wanted to gain experience on how everything works on set. Initially, I thought I was going for an extra role. Before meeting with Ken, I met with the casting director Kathleen Crawford and it was a general chat about who I am, my ambitions, background, interests, personality etc. I got the call back with Ken Loach & Paul Laverty (screenwriter) where I was paired up with another person auditioning: I was given a scenario and had to improvise. The same thing happened in the third call back and before leaving the room Ken winked at me and said: “Kema I’ll see you soon”. I didn’t realise how big the part was until the first day on set.

You work with young people at Gem Arts, encouraging them in music, writing and creativity – tell us more about how this works? can anyone take part?

I find out what type of music the young people are interested in and what they want to develop, whether it might be singing, rapping or songwriting. I challenge them and make them question why they like a certain type of music or form of writing, then I help them create something that’s true to themselves.  Anyone can take part, it’s easier than a lot of people think.  

Did you always know you wanted to work in the creative arts?

I always wanted to be an actor when I was younger, but I didn’t know how. From about the age of 13 or 14, creative writing was a place I felt safe. It’s the only thing I’ve stuck with; I could embody different styles, personas and characters in my music it was fun but at the same time it allowed me to put my deepest thoughts on paper. It’s always been like therapy for me.

When you were growing up in Newcastle was it difficult to get access to theatre and music groups?

Yes. For me, theatre was something for the upper-class, something very unreachable for me and where I grew up, theatre wouldn’t have been seen as something cool when I was trying to fit in. Shakespeare and panto weren’t really my thing and that’s what I thought all theatre was.

What advice would you give to any young people who want to do what you are doing but don’t know where to begin?

Get to know your area, look for opportunities in your field because they are everywhere. Do what you can with what you have got. Get involved in as much as you can, volunteer where you can, seek to learn, collaborate, and most importantly compete with no one but yourself. Push and try be the best version of yourself. Take everything one step at the time. You can only see how far you’ve come by looking back. Do something each day to get a step closer to where you want to be. Big or small, it’s all progress.

Do you think the internet has made it easier or harder for people to ‘get noticed?’

Personally, I think the internet has made things a lot easier, but it all depends on how you look at it. There’s an opportunity in any circumstance. Now we have the technology to create and get our work out there. The gatekeepers are becoming less relevant.

Kema Sikazwe in Shine
Kema Sikazwe in Shine

Shine is your first full-length show, how much work went into making it? – can you describe the process from having the idea to performance?

So much work went into it. It’s the first thing I’ve written for the stage, and because I didn’t have a theatre background I had to learn as much as I could in the time I had. I attended an Arvon course on how to write a script, I started reading plays, books, I attended plays that had a similar style to what I was going for. I also studied what audiences reacted to, what worked on stage and what didn’t, what made things funny, what pulled on peoples’ heartstrings and I applied all that knowledge into my play.

When creating the songs, I knew I had to approach them differently to how I usually write. I wanted to keep people on their toes not knowing what’s happening next. Take people on a rollercoaster but also create something with a universal sound with a hint of theatre. 

Do you believe anyone can ‘shine’?

Yes, I 100 per cent believe anyone can. Finding your shine is about not being afraid to be who you are, who you were supposed to be. Going after what you love and trusting you’ll be okay. We all have our own light. Some people bury it, but it never leaves, we just have to look deep down and find it. 

‘Shine’ is on now and touring later in the year. live.org.uk/whats-on/shine

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