Kema Sikazwe didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he was cast in Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake. The Zambian born rapper had grown up in a rough part of Newcastle wanting to be an actor, but when he went for an audition had presumed he was going to be working as an extra. As it turned out, he was asked to improvise with another performer, and ended up being cast as China, the title character’s neighbour. It was a small but crucial role in Loach’s unflinching polemic on austerity culture and the indignities of the UK’s benefit system. For Sikazwe, whose main focus up until then had been music, it changed everything.
“It was huge for me,” he says in a gentle Geordie burr. “I was getting stopped on the street and getting recognised. Being a kid on a council estate you can feel like one of the forgotten people, but suddenly, getting that amount of recognition, it’s crazy.”
How Sikazwe got there is told in Shine, his autobiographical solo show which arrives in Edinburgh for three nights this week in a production presented by Live Theatre, Newcastle. Mixing music, song and Sikazwe’s own words to show what can be achieved if you stay true to yourself in the face of outside pressures, Shine is also a showcase for Sikazwe’s multi-faceted talent as an artist.
“The show is very much my story,” he says the morning after Shine opens in Newcastle, “from being born in Zambia to coming to Newcastle, and the struggles I found here. There weren’t a lot of black kids around where I grew up, and I had to deal with a lot of racism. Then when I got older I was asked why I spoke so white. I started to find out who I really was through doing theatre. I was always really shy when I was growing up, but I believe in who I am now, and I accept who I am. Part of the reason for doing the show is to take it out there to people who might be like I was, and to inspire them to just be themselves no matter what.”
Sikazwe moved to Newcastle when he was three years old with his brother and parents. Supported by his uncle, Ronald Penza, Zambia’s then minister of finance, the original idea was for his father to study and for the family to move back to Zambia once his education was complete.
When Penza was killed by armed intruders who broke into his home in Lusaka, things changed. Sikazwe’s father had to work around the clock to make ends meet, while his mother, never fully settled in Newcastle, returned home. Sikazwe was bullied, and his brother became involved with drugs. He could have gone the same way, but eventually learnt to stand up for himself.
“Things could have gone so wrong for me, but I chose a different path,” he says, without a hint of melodrama in his voice. “I used to be given a pass so I could leave early because I was being bullied, but that didn’t really help. It just made me more of a victim, but one time I retaliated and hit a kid, and ending up getting charged in court.”
While the bullies were never brought before a judge, Sikazwe was sent to anger management classes.
“Obviously I knew that violence isn’t the answer,” he says, ‘but the sad thing is that bullying still goes on in schools, and racism is still there. For kids like me it’s so easy to go the wrong way, but I was lucky.”
In part inspired by Eminem, Sikazwe turned to music.
“My mum used to sing all the time,” Sikazwe remembers, “and it partly came from that. I started writing down what I was feeling as a kind of therapy, and people said why not turn it into rap.”
Sikazwe did start rapping, and became involved in a youth project.
“I felt like I had purpose,” he says. “Before that I’d been getting into fights, but after that I started spending all my time at the youth project, and I stopped fighting.”
While performing his music under the name Kema Kay - “A lot of people can’t pronounce my second name, so I decided to keep it simple,” – he also moved into extra work, which was how the I, Daniel Blake gig came about.
“I never realised I was going to be playing a speaking part,” Sikazwe says with a skip of understated glee in his voice, “and then suddenly I’m up there doing it.”
Once I, Daniel Blake slipped into public consciousness, things changed again. Sikazwe was approached by agents, and he has appeared in another film, Lady Macbeth. He has also gone back to his old school in Newcastle to talk to students who might be going through some of the same things he did.
“I teach rap, and talk about consequences and actions,” he says, “and to try and get them to steer clear of all the bad things.”
For Sikazwe, Shine is personal at every level. His first name comes from the language spoken by his mother’s tribe, and means ‘the one who shines’. Sadly, Sikazwe’s mother died when he was still a teenager, but her influence clearly remains.
“I was this really quiet, painfully shy kid,” he says, “and she never got to see what I became. Coming from an African background, everything was all about education when I was a kid, and my dad was worried about me doing this, but once he saw I was serious about it he’s been really supportive.”
Sikazwe hopes Shine will have a life beyond the Newcastle and Edinburgh dates, with ambitions to turn it into a film. Whatever happens next, he’s already come a long way.
“When I used to write alone in my room,” he says, it felt like something that was mine. When I found this thing I could do, it gave me empowerment, and gradually gave me confidence. It helped shape me to become a different person.”
Shine, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tomorrow-Saturday
The Herald, May 15th 2019