INTERVIEW: Kema Sikazwe | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Kema Sikazwe (who performs as Kema Kay) is poised to make his stage debut. Kema’s first work for stage debuts at Newcastle’s Live Theatre from Thursday 2nd-Saturday 11th May; Shine was developed out of his first ever scratch experience at Live’s Elevator Festival Scratch Night in 2018. “People were crying, it was mad,” Kema says, “the response to my story was overwhelming and that’s why it got picked up to develop into a full-length production.”

The first thing I’m curious to find out about is the title: why Shine? “My mother is from a tribe in Zambia where Kema means ‘the one who shines’. When it came to the show and my story and what I wanted to tell and say, it made it right to call the show Shine.”

Finding himself in dark places throughout his life, Kema has felt that he has nowhere to belong. Having moved to the UK aged three and growing up in the West End of Newcastle as one of only a few black kids in the area, racism became an everyday hazard. “I’ve been chased and I’ve been jumped, just because of my skin colour, so I never felt like I belonged there.” Ironically, when he got a bit older and met other black kids, he was always told ‘Why do you talk so white?’ so he didn’t fit in there either.

Despite these struggles, there’s a strong sense of prophecy that stands out about this gentle, shy young man. He repeats several times how, subconsciously, he’s always tried to live up to this name that his mother chose for him. He remembers how she used to often say ‘This kid, whatever is going on, he’s going to be seen, he’s going to shine.’

Developing a passion for music as a teenager through a youth project in Arthur’s Hill, Kema now does a lot of work with young people himself, offering them the kind of opportunities that were so important in his life. Kema speaks with conviction about how what we go through in life can be turned into opportunity. He knows the truth of this in his own life.

You may recognise Kema Sikazwe for his appearance as China in the 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, and his personal story and how he told it in the audition are what landed him the role. He’d turned up to audition as an extra and didn’t realise until the first day on set that he’d been cast as a character in the film. Looking back, he recognises with gratitude how this experience has opened so many doors for him.

So…actor, rapper, singer, songwriter, which is it? How does Kema Sikazwe define himself? “I’m an all-out entertainer. I love entertaining. I resist pigeon-holing. Look at Drake and how he broke that barrier – he started out as a rapper and then he started singing and then talking about men’s emotions. At first people were like ‘Ah you’re soft. Why are you doing that?’ But he’s one of the biggest artists in the world now.”

We are all here to do something. Sometimes when people go through bad things, they can use that as an excuse. I try to encourage people to see that we’ve all got this shine

Music was where it all started for Kema. Naming his greatest early inspiration as Mockingbird by Eminem, Kema explains: “Eminem went through all the bad things he went through and yet still fought back. That was huge for me.” Music was like therapy for Kema, helping him to cope with the bullying, troubles at home and suicidal moments. Kema has always told his story through his music. All bar one of the songs in Shine have been written specifically for the production and each of his lyric-laden songs moves the narrative forward in its own unique style. Walk’s mellow keyboard vibe resonates with a gentle optimism of ‘I hope they like me’; the upbeat spiritual Lord, Have Mercy wrestles with confession and forgiveness; and the fast-paced blend of a dynamic techno beat, tightly packed lyrics and African echoes speak with determination and resolve of a volcano ready to erupt.

Through his music, Kema knows how the energy of the crowd amps you up but bringing his story to the stage now is exciting in a fresh way. Overcoming initial resistance when his agent encouraged him into live theatre – “a vision of Shakespeare stuff with someone holding a skull, so that’s a no from me” was his first reaction – Kema’s now looking forward to challenging the preconceptions of his friends and the young people he works with who have never set foot in a theatre before.

This super positive individual brims with calm self-belief and defies all expectations. Where’s the rage against society, the resentment and bitterness about how he’s been mistreated, the anger at the unfairness of losing him mum at only 14?

“Whatever I’m going through is shaping me into who I’m meant to be.” That’s the truth that this guy builds his life upon. As a believer in God, Kema’s whole life is grounded in faith and creativity, confident that there’s a positive in every situation. Which brings us back to Shine:

the script, music and lyrics resonate with the writer and performer’s conviction – “Instead of trying to find somewhere to belong and fit in, stop searching for acceptance and just accept yourself, because once you do that, that’s your shine, that’s the person who you’re meant to be.”

Kema’s realisation that he’s not alone, that there are many people who feel they don’t belong, and people who are still misplaced in society and feeling worthless has led to Shine becoming a universal story, with a message for everyone.

According to Kema, everyone can find their shine: “We are all here to do something. Sometimes when people go through bad things, they can use that as an excuse. I try to encourage people to see that we’ve all got this shine. This is how I’ve found mine and I just want to encourage people to find theirs.”

Shine is at Live Theatre, Newcastle from Thursday 2nd-Saturday 11th May.


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