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Meet the Former Drug-Dealing Gangster Turning Kids Away from Extremism

Tanayah Sam was about to be charged for armed robbery, before skipping bail and heading to Yemen to study Islam – a decision that saved his life.

Tanayah Sam (Photo by Jermaine Pinnock)

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

For a minute or two after getting into Tanayah Sam's car, I wonder if I'm mistaken about the former leading member of Birmingham's notorious Burger Bar Boys gang. An imam is angrily denouncing Charlie Hebdo's pictures of the Prophet Mohammed over the stereo, and the noise overwhelms our initial introduction. On the way to our meeting, the day's newspaper headlines had imposed themselves upon me: Jihadi John had been identified as 27-year-old Londoner Mohammed Emwazi.


In the current climate, significant points in Tanayah's past could be read as a check list on the road towards dangerous radicalisation: a gun-toting, drug-dealing outlaw jumps bail while awaiting trial for armed robbery, devotes himself to Islam and ends up in Yemen, well known as the home of a number of jihadist training grounds. When he was finally caught in Birmingham four years later and given a nine year sentence, Tanayah was labelled an "Islamic gang leader" and moved around 11 different prisons.

Back in Tanayah's car I listen carefully to the imam's sermon. The impassioned voice goes up a notch. The real ire has been saved for the murderers who slaughtered Charlie Hebdo's staff. Like Tanayah's story, it would be a mistake to allow initial impressions to obscure the truth.

The truth is that Tanayah is far from a danger to the public, and is in fact shaping up to be an important player in the struggle to prevent those in Britain who are disenfranchised enough from straying into a life of crime or Islamic extremism. This isn't a personal opinion. The 34-year-old has been accepted to study for his Master of Criminology at Cambridge, despite never having attended university before.

The key to his rehabilitation and ongoing contribution to British society? Tanayah says he couldn't have done it without Allah.

We drive to an inner-city Birmingham school for pupils with behavioural difficulties, which is surrounded by tower blocks where groups of youths stand around aimlessly outside scruffy shopping rows. Tanayah is here to help organise a trip to a nearby prison for a group of at risk children so selected inmates can give them an impression of what's in store if they choose to carry on as they have been – just one part of the decidedly secular work Tanayah does within the prison system. The harried but upbeat teacher he's working with informs me that anti-extremism officers are planning to give a talk at the school.


As the teacher walks us off the premises we pass a teenage boy in the centre of a group of unruly kids.

Pointing to him, Tanayah says to the teacher: "I want that one there to come."

There's some amiable passing conversation; the teenager says that a relative of his is in prison and asks if Tanayah knows him. He mentions a name: nothing. He mentions a street name: there seems to be a glimmer of recognition in Tanayah's eyes.

A young Tanayah

That criminal behaviour can be passed down through families is familiar to most, but Tanayah's knowledge of the process is as intimate as it comes. Until he was 14, Tanayah was raised by his mum in a steady and loving home. He was doing well in school and loved football. Then his reggae-artist father, who'd been an intermittent presence during Tanayah's childhood and was involved in the Yardie culture, came back onto the scene. One night while he was staying at his dad's, things changed forever.

"He called me into his bedroom and he had a revolver gun in his hand. He's like, 'Come here, son.' I've gone to him, and he's said, 'Go on, hold this.' He helped me point the gun out the window and I fired one shot. Then it was a pat on the back and I could go back to my bedroom," Tanayah explains.

"When I look back, it was like a rite of passage in his world. In some African cultures, kids at that age get circumcised, or they might go out into the wilderness and kill a wild beast. He made me fire a gun."


After his initiation Tanayah was granted access to his father's pseudo-celebrity world of good times and bad behaviour. The 14-year-old decided he didn't need an education. What was the point of learning when it was obvious you could take everything you wanted by force? In the space of a year Tanayah went from being near top of his class to being expelled for stabbing a school-mate in the chest with a screwdriver.

Footage from the Love Express sound system in Birmingham in 1986, the scene Tanayah's dad was involved in

The Jamaican music scene, once a cultural aside to day-to-day life, took more and more precedence. Tanayah's social group narrowed until it included only the offspring of broken homes and badman fathers, all of which – at that time – centred around dancehall club nights in Birmingham.

Things fell apart: his mum chucked him out because of his increasingly wayward behaviour, and schooling stopped altogether. He moved in with his dad for a while before his mum, in desperation, sent him to Jamaica to spend time with his grandma. Tanayah was back within six weeks and had decided to take a different tack.

"When I got back to my mum's I was this humble kid. She can see a change in my attitude and I know not to go home with too much badness," Tanayah tells me. "But in front of my dad and my uncles I'm smoking weed. There's older women sharing my bed. I remember, at one point, being at my dad's and there were some Yardies there and there were four guns just laying on the table. By the time I was 15 I was gone – just deep in that world."


By now, Tanayah had started to make inroads of his own into the netherworld of criminal life. Swapping reggae for drum and bass he and his friends also had new role models to look up to: the original Burger Bar Crew, who, in 1996, were wresting control of the drug market from the Yardies one murder at a time. Sixteen-year-old Tanayah and his friends were still fledging gangsters, but they were starting to get noticed at club nights, and they were enjoying the notoriety.

"When you're name's bigged up on the mic and everyone's listening, it's like you become that celeb. I think a lot of us suffered from feeling invisible. Our mums were holding down jobs and doing the best they possibly could. But a mum can't be a dad," Tanayah says. "And the father element in life, you don't have it – and when you do, you just see a celebrity father, so to speak. You want that. Without that you're not there, you're not noticed."

Tanayah as a young man

From 16 to 19 Tanayah's life went something like this: selling weed turned into moving heroin and crack, carrying a knife turned into walking with a gun, rivalries turned into murderous feuds, friendships turned into faustian pacts, prison stints turned into stretches (at one point he even did time with his dad).

By 1999 the Badder Bar crew that Tanayah had become a major player in were widely feared, inheriting the Burger Bar's position (though, to the outside world, they would still be known by that name, as it became a kind of shorthand to refer to a number of gangs in the area). Instead of battling with Jamaican-born Yardies they fought, often to the death, with other nearby black British gangs. It was the beginning of one of the bloodiest periods of modern Birmingham's history.



It's Friday, so the roads around the mosque are crowded with parked cars. After finding a parking space Tanayah hurries into the mosque, which has been converted from an old church, to pray. Inside, the building is bare except for a large red carpet and patterned stained glass windows. The simple layout is designed to invite uninterrupted contemplation.

The imam's voice is melodic and soothing, and the collective rustling of shell-suit tops and puffer jackets sound like autumn leaves as the worshippers bend to pray. Compared to the frenetic end-of-week streets outside it is a relaxing and serene atmosphere – one that is central to Tanayah's life. It's a long way from the jungle MCs shout outs and breakbeats, heard in an all together different type of temple, that were so coveted in his youth.

After prayers have finished I ask Tanayah about the armed robbery. We're driving to the halal butchers to pick up the two sheep that have been slaughtered in celebration of his baby boy's birth, as per Islamic tradition. The botched attempt to rob an off-license in 2000 is a shameful and embarrassing subject for him. The shopkeeper wrestled with him and the gun went off twice, thankfully without injuring anyone.

"I just look like a dick. I just wanted some money for some weed – it wasn't even like it was going to be profitable. I was living on adrenaline and I had this concept that I could do whatever I wanted," he admits. "I didn't think about the after-effects it could have had on that man's life. I wanted to say sorry, but they told me after the trial that it was better to leave it alone. I feel guilty about the bad things I've done. Now I have to put in more positive than I have negative."


The robbery was a turning point. Tanayah had flirted with the idea of Islam some months earlier, but after two weeks of trying to stay straight a rival gang member had pulled a gun on him and he dived back in. This time was different: after being arrested and charged for the robbery, and questioned about numerous other serious offences, he looked at his life and realised that it was an unmitigated disaster. Whatever happened – whether he was on the streets or behind bars – there was no escape from the ever-deepening cycles of crime and incarceration.

(Photo by Jermaine Pinnock)

Alone in his cell, Tanayah got down on his knees and began to pray: "I said to Allah, 'If you can get me out, I promise I'm not going back to the street, I'm going to change.'"

Tanayah was bailed and he kept his word, though it was a slow and delicate process. First he cut off contact with his boys, a risky decision that contained the real possibility of internecine bloodshed. On top of this, his enemies would kill him if given the opportunity, so he was still carrying a gun in the fault-line neighbourhood where he lived.

At the same time, Tanayah was also carrying the Bible and the Quran, sitting on the steps of Birmingham's central library, "reading both and just trying to figure it out". The Bible had been given to him by a friend of his dad's named Doc, who died. The inscription reads: "To Tanayah from Doc. Walk good."

A chance encounter with a taxi driver led Tanayah to his first visit to a mosque, and over the next few months he began his long journey from rude boy to religious man. The armed robbery trial was drawing closer and closer, and after being told by his barrister that he was facing 15 years, Tanayah "jumped on a plane to Yemen" in spring of 2001.


"I was relieved when I did get locked up. The running took its toll."

Tanayah says: "Yemen at the time was where a lot of Muslims were going to learn the religion. It wasn't as it is today. There was a connection there for me, brothers were there to meet me from different countries, from different races, and this became something that just cemented that there was no way I was going back into the criminal lifestyle. I started to learn a bit of Arabic and the cultural aspects of Islam."

After four months Tanayah returned to England as a wanted man. Despite being on the run, and suffering two gang-related attempts on his life, Tanayah says he stayed on the straight and narrow through cash-in-hand and agency work, and a strict adherence to Islam. After four years the police caught up with him and, in 2005, he was sentenced to nine in prison for armed robbery.

"I was relieved when I did get locked up. The running took its toll," he tells me.


We pull up next to a mosque and Islamic bookshop in a rundown area, with two dead sheep in the trunk. A few men dressed in Muslim robes are hanging around outside. Tanayah starts putting the cut up meat into plastic bags and handing it out to people as a gift, in accordance with tradition.

Nine or ten people are now gathered around the car. A guy pulls up in a VW Polo and asks Tanayah what he's selling. Learning the meat is free he happily takes a bag and drives off.


David (not his real name) is one of those at the car. Wearing Kickers boots, a white thobe and a Yasser Arafat scarf draped over a head that, in previous years, likely sported dreadlocks, David – with his thick Jamaican accent – is a striking figure.

The 40-year-old tells me he used to be "on the road", but left the criminal life after converting to Islam.

"I went back a couple of times when I needed the money. But every time I did I felt a little bit worse, until I stopped altogether," he says.

David slips his arm through mine, points to the sky and gives me his patois-inflected take on Islam's explanation of the mysteries of existence. It's a gentle enough theory and is pleasant to listen to.

Then he switches subject: "We're not those funny Muslims who say they can't be free here. Nobody goes hungry, you can have a place to live. That's what it's about."

David spreads his arms and legs wide like a star and says: "Look, I'm free to practice my religion right here."

(Photo by Jermaine Pinnock)

In prison, Tanayah's practice of Islam brought advantages and disadvantages. Once imprisoned gang members realised he had renounced the life and was not only a practicing Muslim but also versed in the Arabic root of the religion, he was left alone. His incarceration was violence free, except for one incident, when a young gang member attacked him in an attempt to prove himself. The disadvantage was that the authorities mistook him as an Islamic gang leader, which led to him being shuttled around 11 different prisons.


"I got labelled as the leader of a Muslim gang, which was ironic, 'cos I was actually trying to diffuse guys away from extremist ideologies and gangs. Some of it was because Muslims are taught to pray together," he says. "On one wing I was on there was 18 Muslims out of a population of 60. The prison officers weren't really knowledgeable about Islam or gang culture, so naturally it worried them. Unfortunately it can fuel the anti-authority attitude that leads many to adopt Islam in the first place, when in fact true Islam is not hostile to authority."

In 2013, Muslim prisoners in England and Wales had doubled from 7 percent of prisoners in 2002 to 14 percent, with the numbers continuing to grow. Muslims make up just 4.7 percent of the population in England and Wales. It is a controversial topic and one the Ministry of Justice apparently does not want discussed. Repeated requests to speak to its Muslim Prison Advisor about issues surrounding the religion's rehabilitative qualities have been denied.

While, for Tanayah, becoming a Muslim meant he was given the structure to stop committing crime and lead a productive life, it doesn't mean he's been prevented from identifying the problems that crop up when Islam is practiced behind bars. Since his release in 2010 Tanayah has worked within nine prisons, teaching convicts about engaging in civil society, working with gang members to develop the skills needed to exit the lifestyle and guiding the authorities to better understand the prison population. He's had a front row seat from which he can properly evaluate things.


Tanayah says there is a lack of diversity among Muslim prison chaplains, and that recent converts in prison need religious guidance from people they identify with. A middle-aged imam of Pakistani origin from Bradford is perhaps not the best person to communicate the core tenets of Islam to a young black man from London. If a convert does not relate to the recognised religious authority within a prison, Tanayah says, there is the potential that he will turn to someone he does relate to – usually a fellow prisoner – and that can have dangerous implications.

This is just one of the avenues Tanayah hopes to explore and expand on at Cambridge, most of them secular topics he understands through hard-learned insight. That is if he can raise the £18,000 needed to take the Masters Degree.

"Islam is not for everyone, and I don't push my religion on anyone. If you ask I will inform, but that's as far as it goes. I genuinely just want to help people break the cycle of crime, so if I can't go to Cambridge I'll be happy continuing with my work," he says.

"But I'm praying that I can go."


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