In Maya Jama’s earliest memory, the police are knocking on the door, and then they are asking her: “Where’s your dad?” Maya knew exactly where he was: under the bed. “I told them, and they pulled him out and took him away. And I felt guilty, because I’d given away his hiding place.”

That was two decades ago. For most of Maya’s childhood, her dad was, as she puts it, “banged up. It wasn’t one long sentence, it was lots of sentences – sentence after sentence. Mostly, it was for violence, for pub brawls and fights. The usual thing was that he’d be drinking and get into a fight. Someone would get hurt, and he’d go to jail.”

For a long time, Maya shut out her dad and his sorry tale. She stopped seeing him when she was 12; she concentrated on her own life, forging a career in the media, and is in a relationship with the grime artist Stormzy. But now she has decided to confront her demons over her dad: she wants to know the details of the crimes that landed him in prison. She wants to know why he kept getting into trouble, time after time, which meant he wasn’t around when she and her brother, Omar, were growing up, and their mum had to look after them on her own. Perhaps most of all, she wants to know what made him a “bad” man: is there something her family have been hiding from her, something that explains what made her dad unable to stay out of trouble?

These are the questions Maya explores in a TV documentary in which she talks to other young people who, like her, have grown up with a dad behind bars. They include Ellie, 22, whose father is serving 24 years for drug smuggling; Jill, 25, who was attacked by her dad; and Roanne, 23, who witnessed her stepdad killing her mum. The stories of the film’s participants give some clues as to what results. Ellie has had depression. Jill self-harms. And Roanne, unsurprisingly, is still traumatised.

By comparison, Maya seems remarkably together. In part, she explains when we meet, this is because she grew up with a very supportive extended family; but also, she knows that the way she dealt with her dad’s problems was by putting them into a box, and shutting it away inside herself. From the age of 12, she cut off all contact with him and for the past decade has ignored him and refused to acknowledge the absence in her life.

“I had plenty of people around me who did what a dad should do,” she explains. “I never felt unloved; my childhood was as good as it could have been. There was no lack of love, and my dad’s brother was around so there was a male presence.”

Having a father in prison felt normal for her as a young child because she had never known anything different. “I remember me and my brother being put into the back of the car with a blanket for a long journey, and then we’d get searched by dogs on the way in and then talk to my dad across a table. There were sweets in the car, and it was a day out. It was only as I got older that I realised my friends’ families weren’t like mine, that they had dads who were around, not dads who were in prison.”

Maya Jama: ‘I realised my friends’ families weren’t like mine – they had dads who were around, not dads who were in prison.’ Photograph: Rob Greig for the Guardian

As time went on, going to see her dad became less and less appealing. “I wanted to be with my friends, and, instead, I’d have to go on this long drive to see my dad. I started to think, he should make more of an effort to stay out of jail, so he was around to be part of our family. He hadn’t been good to my mum: she was struggling, having to do lots of jobs and raising us on her own. And so I stopped going to see him: my mum had already stopped, and she left it up to me to make my own mind up.”

Why, a decade on, has she decided to think again about her dad? Is it connected with her relationship with Stormzy? The couple have been together for three years, she says, and are pretty serious. Is this the sort of emotional baggage she needs to shed before she has children? Stormzy “isn’t in touch with his dad either; a lot of people I know don’t speak to their fathers”. She knows, she says, that “women go for a bad man if they’ve got a bad dad”, but says, in her case, her uncle, and later her mother’s new partner, gave her positive role models, men she could look up to and trust: that has made all the difference to her ability to form a relationship.

So yes, she says, maybe it is because of her age and stage in life; and also, she has wondered whether she hadn’t been “a bit heartless” to cut herself off from her dad all those years ago. But there is something else in the mix, too: as she has got older, she has wondered more and more about exactly why her father behaved the way he did.

“I realised I didn’t know anything about his childhood. Did something happen to make him violent? I don’t think anyone is born bad – something happens along the way.”

Like Ellie, who refuses to believe her dad is guilty, and Jill, who says that, despite everything, she would let her dad back into her heart – “Yes, if he was sorry … it’s family, isn’t it?” – Maya wants to think the best of her father. And even though she has denied it, she has come to realise that, even despite her extended family, there is a space that only her dad can fill. At one point in the film, she becomes tearful when she realises this is finally it, the moment she has to face up to what her father’s troubles have meant to her own life.

She goes in search of answers to her questions by speaking to members of her father’s family, including his sister, her aunt. “I asked her lots about their childhood, whether anything happened to him that made him the way he was,” she says. “But she said, no, they were a very close family. There were five children and they were all treated the same, and everyone else is fine. They were educated in a school where most of the kids were white – their family was one of the first Somali families to settle in Bristol – so maybe that had something to do with it, but I can’t be certain.”

Maya’s dad has been out of prison for the last year: during the filming of the documentary she decided to meet him. Father and daughter are seen sitting on a park bench; the conversation isn’t audible, but it’s clearly an emotional occasion. “I felt sorry for him; I felt sad for him,” she says. “I wanted him to explain why he’d done those bad things and he was embarrassed, and I felt bad for him.” But nothing he said, and nothing his family told her, gave her any real insights into why his life took the turns it did: that, she agrees, was a major disappointment.

“I know it was an ambitious aim, but I thought maybe there was one thing or a few things that would explain him to me, put him into context. But I can see it’s not as simple as I hoped: I’m left thinking that either he is just bad, or there are things I don’t know about him and may never know.”

Maya with Stormzy. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

The disappointment she feels about not having discovered more about her father has been a knock, but Maya is an expert at bouncing back. Having been brought up in Bristol, by her mother, who was of Swedish descent, she moved to London at the age of 16. There things started well, but then fell apart: the flatmate she was living with had a serious drug problem, and then Maya’s boyfriend was shot and killed during an incident in a pub. “That’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says. “It was unreal – the sort of thing that happens in films.”

It is all the more impressive that Maya (she was named after Maya Angelou, because her mother was reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when she was pregnant) seems so straightforward and upbeat, fast-talking and focused. “That experience [losing her boyfriend] gave me so much motivation to push with my career. At the time, work was the only thing that made me happy, so I just kept on going with it. Bad things happen, but you’ve got to try to make good things out of that tough situation. That’s what it taught me.”

Her ambition was to host a show on prime-time TV before she hit 25; and now, just turned 23, she is presenting the new ITV Saturday night water challenge show, Cannonball, and has worked on BBC’s Technobabble, Rinse FM and 4Music. Being Stormzy’s partner means she is a constant presence in the tabloids but, she says, she doesn’t intend to be eclipsed by him.

“I never wanted my name to be overshadowed by a relationship,” she says. “I try to keep it as low-key as possible, but what can you do? He’s doing amazingly well.” For the first two years of being together, she says, they kept their relationship a secret; but when he released Birthday Girl in her honour a year ago, their cover was blown.

“You’re the birthday queen, what’s the drama?” go the lyrics. “I’ll be your shinin’ knight, where’s my armour?” According to Maya, a shining knight is just what she has been looking for: her absent dad, she concedes, has a huge effect on her relationship. “The man I look at will always be someone who is supportive and will give a sense of what a father should be … a protective, kind, loving person.”

And if her dad’s story plays out in her emotional needs, it plays out, too, in the rest of her life, especially her career success. “I think my independence comes from him,” she says. “Because if someone leaves you in your family at a young age, you think, I don’t need him anyway. It gives you a kind of inner strength; it makes you realise that no one will be there for ever. You only really have yourself to rely on.”

 When Dad Kills will air at 9pm on 27 September, on 5Star

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