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Joshua Luke Smith: Meet the rapper helping prisoners process their past through poetry

Joshua Luke Smith speaks about overcoming an addiction to gambling, fatherhood, faith and what he has learnt from teaching poetry to men in prison

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Joshua Luke Smith says he is feeling 'Liberated'. Image: Joshua Luke Smith

Joshua Luke Smith felt like an alien on the school playground because he had never heard of David Beckham. He had spent the first decade of his childhood in an impoverished area of Pakistan with missionary parents and had just returned to England.

“There were moments in the markets where people would come up to you and pinch your skin, because it was the novelty of white skin, but that’s all I knew,” Smith says as he recalls his childhood in Pakistan. “I have felt different my whole life. I have never known where I belonged. I lived in 14 different houses by the age of 15. I don’t know where I’m from.”

Smith is working towards finding his place in the world – as a rapper, poet, pastor, husband, father and recovering gambling addict. He teaches poetry to men in prison, giving them the chance to use words to navigate their anger and pain, because it is through writing that he has been able to come to terms with his own suffering.

The cover art for Smith’s single: ‘Liberated’. Image: Joshua Luke Smith

It took years for Smith, who is now 33, to admit he had a gambling problem. “The first step was denial,” he says. “There was anger and a sense of frustration that you’ve got stuff to deal with and not everything is OK. For me it was an experience of acknowledging I don’t have a clean sheet. I’ve made mistakes and I need to acknowledge them.” 

It started on the school playground, challenging his friends to a game where they would throw coins at the wall and whoever got closer would get to keep all the money. That sparked something in him, at just 12 years old, and gambling became his most dangerous vice. 

Smith got a call from a debt collector during his godson’s birthday party in 2019. “I remember looking across the room at my wife and thinking that she doesn’t know there’s going to be a debt collector at our door today,” the rapper says. “That was the beginning of realising I had to make a change.”

But it was two more years before Josh truly started to change his life. By that point, he had a one-year-old daughter and a son who was on the way and he realised he needed to act for them. He had been caged by gambling and is now on a 12 step programme towards recovery.

His new single and upcoming album are titled Liberated. “I’m liberated because I’m not hiding anymore,” Smith says. “Now the single has come out, that’s what I’m announcing. You are free at the point when you acknowledge your fear, your shame, your grief. That is the whole journey of the album to come.”

Smith is deeply spiritual. His faith has been a constant in his life, but it also intensified the shame he felt as he suffered through addiction. He had always been taught that God shows grace to people who have made mistakes, yet it took him a long time to accept it for himself. 

His parents had sought to help people even though they had made mistakes, and this has followed Smith for the rest of his life. “I’ve never known a life that doesn’t cost you comfort for the sake of someone else. My dad would work in drug rehabilitation and we would have guys outside the clinic on the streets coming to stay in the house, which is probably very unethical, but it’s what he did. He just wanted to help.”

Smith is following in their footsteps, as a pastor and in his work teaching poetry in prisons. He first performed in prison around a decade ago and felt an instant connection to the men who had been convicted of crimes. Some had been jailed for life. 

“I was around these men who had incredibly limited lives but a whole lot of space for self-reflection,” he says. “And so what I found was a real depth and a real wisdom there. I just kept coming back, and now I run poetry workshops in prison.

“In writing poetry, they’re able to process their past. They’re able to articulate their stories. You can write to just discover more of the life you’re living here and now and then reimagine what the future could be. That’s all wrapped up in the process of writing. It’s heartbreaking. It’s difficult. It’s all of the stuff you’d imagine, but it’s a real honour.”

Smith says he has never made a mistake that isn’t connected to loss or anger. Image: Joshua Luke Smith

Smith recalls writing ‘angry letters’ alongside men in prison. “We were writing letters to ourselves, acknowledging pain and specifically the emotion of anger,” he says. “This man wrote this incredible piece where he acknowledged that he was angry at God, however you define God. 

“He lost his son at five years old. He didn’t know what to do with the pain. And so he drank. He ended up on the street. And it just one thing led to another and all of a sudden he’s in a shop with a weapon and he’s robbing and now he’s serving a long sentence. He recognised that he made a mistake. And hearing him work that out was so impactful for me. I have never made a mistake that isn’t connected to loss or anger.”

Smith worked with men in prison long before he came to terms with the mistakes he had made in his own life. He has taught them a lot through poetry, but they have taught him far more. “They spoke to me about running out of options,” he says. “A part of me had longed for that moment. If you’re an addict, or if you’re someone with that disposition, there’s a part of me that wants to get caught – because then, I can begin rebuilding.”

Joshua Luke Smith’s work in prisons is funded by The Write Club, where members receive weekly input on their writing and join a wider community of members. You can watch the Liberated music video here or stream the single on Spotify or Apple Music. The album will be out in March 2024.

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