25 April 2022
Joshua Luke Smith is a poet for the people. His music blends elements of rap, R&B, soul and poetry, telling stories from his own experiences designed to resonate with people from all walks of life. After nearly a decade of releasing music in the form of singles, EPs and mixtapes, his debut album The Void comes as an independent release, funded by crowdsourced support from fans and almost entirely self-produced. Smith has been praised in Complex, featured on BBC Radio 1Xtra, and collaborated with international artists like cult American rapper Oddisee and London-based singer-songwriter Jake Isaac. As Smith puts it himself, his music is made to “speak into the chaos” of the modern world, distilling his own experience of grief and trauma into something anyone can relate to.
Smith was born in London, but before his second birthday his parents moved to a rural, impoverished area of northern Pakistan. His father was a doctor who, rather than stay in Britain and live a regular middle-class life, decided to move to a place where his skills were really needed. As his parents and a team of doctors built a hospital, Smith grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas, surrounded by natural beauty but also exposed to extreme poverty from a very early age. His earliest memory of music is spending nine-hour car journeys listening to his dad’s three-album tape collection on repeat, greatest hits compilations by Genesis, Tracy Chapman and Cat Stevens. “It’s cliché, but honestly at four, five years old, listening to these timeless songwriters telling stories, I was like ‘Yeah, this is what I wanna do. I wanna write songs. I wanna tell stories,’” he says.
At the age of nine Smith wrote his first poem. Soon after his family moved back to London, then north to Bradford. Having spent his childhood listening to his dad’s rock collection, Smith’s life changed when his older sister brought home two hip-hop records, first The Fugees’ classic 1996 album The Score and then Eminem’s timeless single ‘Stan’. “That’s when everything changed for me,” Smith says. He was enchanted by Eminem’s storytelling ability and his use of multiple characters in one song. From that point onwards he was hooked on hip-hop, devouring the genre’s great storytellers — rappers like Nas and 2Pac — while hoping to become one himself.
He began making music at 12, producing simple beats on his dad’s midi sampler before eventually starting to record vocals over the top. Around the age of 16 he discovered garage band and soon developed the production skills that he uses to this day. Aged 22 he put out his first EP, landing at number two on the iTunes hip-hop chart. Suddenly he had fans around the world and a reliable source of income. “I was like ‘Oh wow, I can do this,’” says Smith. An American tour followed, during which Smith met Oddisee, one of his favourite rappers. Then in 2017 Smith recorded a Ted Talk, 19 minutes of spoken word dealing with the importance of inner peace and healing.
Among Smith’s best known works is ‘Becoming Human’, a poem inspired by the story of an attempted suicide. After its release, Smith was contacted by the suicide prevention charity Samaritans, who wanted to use the piece for National Suicide Prevention Day. Smith of course obliged. He has also worked with non-profits such as A21 and The Naked Truth. “Beyond putting out records I’ve had the honour of working with people that are on the front line of human suffering,” he says.
While reading the work of theologian Eugene H. Peterson, Smith came across the idea of “speaking into the chaos”, something he tries to do in his music. Rather than adding to the chaos of modern society, Smith’s music is about bringing solace and tranquility by addressing elements of the human condition that other artists might shy away from. He wrote The Void while processing the grief of losing one of his
best friends to cancer. In the 18 months he spent working on the album, Smith learned the importance of solitude, of being able to admit to his own emotional struggle and dealing with pain head on.
With a UK tour planned for October 2021, Smith hopes to tour the album around the world, telling stories to a tribe of likeminded people and helping others process their own complicated feeling