Growing up in the Magnolia housing projects in New Orleans, Bryan “Baby” Williams knew that using his instincts for survival made for a better tomorrow. Birdman — as he is known on stage — remembers his younger days pretty vividly, describing his come up as being unfortunate with little means. He had to grind to get it like everyone else.
So you can imagine how tough it was for families during the holidays, scraping together what money they had to cook a holiday feast with a spread. Some families couldn’t even have a proper sit-down dinner — either because they were working or were homeless. Recognizing the families in need, a 12-year-old Baby adopted a Robin Hood mentality. He believed they deserved a festive meal, and he was going to do whatever it took to give people turkeys on Thanksgiving.
“Nobody ain’t have the money, we ain’t have the food,” Birdman recalls by phone. “So we used to run to the store and take ‘em. Bring ‘em back to the neighborhood or buy some and give some to the neighborhood. So I said once I got a chance to get some money, I’ll do something like that… once we got older and got money ‘cause we was real young, we just ended up buying turkeys and giving them to the whole projects, the whole neighborhood. Giving ‘em away to everybody in the projects.”
The idea was simple: give back to the city that raised you. Birdman’s earliest incarnation of a turkey giveaway was the birth of a long-standing tradition in New Orleans, where he continued to legitimize the annual event after his label, Cash Money Records, signed to Universal in 1998. Birdman, along with his brother Ronald “Slim” Williams, established the Cash Money Turkey Giveaway to donate their time and resources every holiday season. Now going into its 24th year, the Cash Money CEOs have created a day’s worth of activities to improve the quality of life of their community and support the disenfranchised.
“I was a young kid, just lost and trying to find a way in life,” Birdman says. “So, it’s important for me to come back, just to let them see that it’s possible. We ain’t have no mold, we ain’t have nobody to say that we can be like this person besides on a negative side. So, for me, to come back knowing that we really made it and come from the negativity and show them that it is possible, that’s what it is all about.”
The turkey giveaway is sponsored by The Johnny And Gladys Williams Foundation, a non-profit organization named in honor of Baby and Slim’s parents. Over the years, the event was held at A.L. Davis Park near Glady’s Bar (Birdman used to live on top of the bar as a child), before moving to New Home Full Gospel Ministries. Cash Money gets help from local volunteers and family members, as well as celebrities like Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Young Thug, and Jacquees, who have all made appearances in the past. Participants include Walmart, who supplies the turkeys, Rouses Markets, who donates sides and fixings, and local hip-hop and R&B station Q93.3, who do a live radio broadcast and provide music for the day.
Ever year, thousands line up to receive a turkey and Thanksgiving gift bag. Birdman estimates that 1,500 to 2,500 turkeys are given away per year. Sometimes, the number goes as high as 3,000. In total, that’s about 60,000 turkeys since its inception.
In many event recap videos online, you can see the gratitude from the less fortunate, praising Cash Money for their philanthropic efforts. “I think the spirit of benevolence is always a blessing to the community. New Orleans has been through a whole lot, and it’s always good and always a blessing when anybody decides to give back to our city,” said Pastor Samuel Blakes in a video from 2014.
An added bonus is to meet Baby and Slim in person to shake their hands, take pictures, and give them personal thank yous. Birdman is overwhelmed by the amount of people who come and see the Stunna Man, especially the familiar faces who once helped him and his family during trying times.
“I used to live block to block — this block, that block,” Birdman says. “I used to go to this house and eat, go to that house and eat. Just the love that they showed me. Not even thinking I would do something in life. I was just a young kid that they knew my situation that my parents passed. So for us coming up like that, and to still see these same people, I do anything for them. Any time.”
In 2014, the Cash Money Turkey Giveaway added a full-service health fair conducted by Ochsner Health System to provide education and free screenings for glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure, dental care, eye exams, quick look electrocardiograms, stroke assessment, and more. Attendees may receive counseling on heart-healthy diets, kidney disease, prenatal care, and diabetes as well as undergo smoking cessation programs. At 51 years old, Birdman emphasizes the importance of a healthy lifestyle, which is why he wanted to offer some of these services to people.
“When I was young, we was thuggin’, having a good time, and living this life ‘cause we didn’t have nothin’,” he says. “But at this point in my life, health is one of the most, top-level choices for me. Now I look at it like I got to live longer. It ain’t about me partyin’ and all this other bullshit. I did that shit all my life. At this point in my life, it’s about my health. I want to see my kids have kids. I want to be here.”
Turkey giveaways happen all across the country, but what makes Cash Money’s event so special is the connection to the people of New Orleans. They understand that giving means more than receiving, having been there after Hurricane Katrina destroyed homes and displaced families in 2005, and responding by putting on a much-needed turkey giveaway with two formal dinners. Cash Money has since organized turkey giveaways in Harlem and Miami, and even showed support to Saints player Alvin Kamara’s turkey giveaway in New Orleans, coming to help him after they wrapped up their own.
With the foundation and success Cash Money has built – both in their legacy as a music label and as a beacon of hope for New Orleans – it shows that they’re forever indebted to their hometown. The blueprint their own turkey giveaway in their own city is right there. Birdman’s advice on doing such is he simply wants folks to act on their good faith.
“Just go for it,” Birdman says. “Before I had help, I was just doing that shit. Now you can study the things that we’ve done and you can try to do it at whatever level you can do it to, but when we started this shit, ain’t nobody told us nothin’. We just went and bought a bunch of turkeys and then they were talkin’ about needing the dressings with it so we eventually got the whole package.”
“We was creating something,” he adds, “so if you create something, you just gotta go for it.”