Thanksgiving is America’s great reminder to consider the plight of others. Communities traditionally come together in aid of shared values. And, rappers (yes, rappers!) become good samaritans, handing out turkeys to thousands of deserving families.
Believe it or not, the charitable convention of handing out Thanksgiving turkeys begins with the mafia.
“On Thanksgiving Day, [Al] Capone said he was personally donating 5,000 turkeys,” noted Carl Sikakis in The Mafia Encyclopedia. Other accounts suggest that, in 1930, 5,000 people were fed on Thanksgiving, not with a traditional meal but with a hearty beef stew instead. Regardless, Capone’s largesse can’t be ignored. The Chicago boss ran his charitable arm through a State Street soup kitchen called The Loop, claiming expenditures of $12,000 during the Great Depression. Puffing a giant cigar, he expressed his sympathy for the destitute. Reporters ate it up. And his community service predates Roosevelt’s Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, formed in October of 1933 with the aim of distributing to local relief organizations.
Here’s the rub: Capone, up on tax evasion charges, was taking the turkeys from mom-and-pop grocers.
Despite the shaky history of his good deeds, Capone’s legacy lived on in America’s underworld. Gangsters in the post-Prohibition era are also noted for their holiday spirit. In Boston, James “Whitey” Bulger is remembered by South End residents for handing out Turkeys. New York’s Nicky Barnes was considered “the King of Harlem,” using Thanksgiving as an opportunity to solidify his neighborhood standing. Frank Lucas and Raymond Marquez did the same. Each of them, so the narrative goes, influenced by Lucas’ mentor, Bumpy Johnson—a tradition that’s dramatized in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007).
The charitable convention of handing out Thanksgiving turkeys begins with the mafia.
These are famous names, and famous acts of perceived kindness. Like Capone, gangsters of the late 20th century often beat government agencies to the punch. Food banks, now the locations of annual turkey drives, did not form until 1967 (and then did not take root until the 1980s). In their showy fashion, gangsters celebrated themselves, solidifying their status in underserved communities and, in so doing, taking a calculated risk that balanced criminality with kindness.
Rappers certainly aren’t gangsters. However, in cribbing monikers and slang from criminal classes, these musicians have successfully contributed to the folklore of American amorality. Public shows of altruism, as they were in Johnson’s Harlem, are common—never more so than in late November.
The 1990s witnessed hip-hop’s first foray into widespread charity (MC Hammer, for example, organized a massive food drive while on tour). 1991’s New Jack City, director Mario Van Peeble’s seminal crack flick, incorporated elements of gangster philanthropy, too: Nino Brown (played by Wesley Snipes) and his Cash Money Brothers supply their neighborhood with festive feasts, providing an opportunity for the police to spy on the operation. The Cash Money Brothers inspired the name of brothers Bryan and Slim Williams’ Cash Money Records, founded in 1991. The rap crew, like Nino Brown, has demonstrated a commitment to local charity.
Scenes from the 2010 “Birdman & YMCMB: Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner Giveaway” prove the publicity potential of community action. Yes, upwards of 10,000 turkeys are given to needy New Orleans families, but there are also t-shirts emblazoned with Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday art (and its 11/23 release date) to go along with the poultry. Birdman says, “It feels good to be home. And they feel even better for us to come home.” Birdman, channeling Nicky Barnes, becomes king of his own domain (Uptown New Orleans).
All across the country, rappers follow in the footsteps of gangsters, handing out turkeys in an act that is equal parts community service and media feeding frenzy. 50 Cent, Birdman, Ludacris, Young Jeezy, and many, many more have participated in drives. These guys want to give back, and do.
Yet, in eschewing any anonymity, this style of public largesse connects to the legacy of Bulger, Capone, and Lucas—narcissism, as much as magnanimity, fueling decisions. There’s too often a pomp and circumstance that transcends typical celebrity goodwill. Youtube turns small, localized moments into blog fodder, with those interviewed sounding a little like the guys who said Capone did more for the poor than the U.S. government.
Rappers are not alone in holiday charity, though. In Southern California, E.J. Jackson (chauffeur to the stars, a.k.a. “Mr. Turkey) has been providing for his South Los Angeles community for over three decades. Jackson’s clients—including Shaquille O’Neal, Jamie Foxx, and Chris Tucker—often pitch in. Some people believe his drive to be the longest-standing example in the nation, and the Foundation estimates that it has fed nearly 500,000 people over the years.
Of course, there’s nothing gangster about Jackson. He says he gives away meals because he saw the need to help senior citizens on fixed-incomes enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving. For every Jackson, there’s a rapper like Mista F.A.B., now on his seventh annual Turkey drive, proving that good old, street-driven community action hasn’t died.
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The turkey-giveaway may have criminal antecedents, but the American inclination to give thanks supersedes that history. Yes, handing out turkeys helps solidify local legend. But, as the tradition advances, it has become hip-hop’s version of the Macy’s Day Parade. Full of flare, pageantry, and, appropriately, gratitude to their respective communities.