Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, known to hip-hop heads as RZA, has collaborated with Good Humor to create a replacement song for “Turkey in the Straw,” one of the most common songs played by ice cream trucks. A folk melody from the 19th century, “Turkey in the Straw” was popularized by minstrel shows in the United States until the 1930s, and a particularly racist variant of the tune was released by vaudeville actor Harry C. Browne in 1916, replacing the lyrics with stereotypes about Black people eating watermelons.
Ice cream parlors in the 19th century played “Turkey in the Straw,” leading to its still-common usage today. Following nationwide attention on the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, criticism of the tune was heightened, with celebrities including Viola Davis sharing viral videos explaining “Turkey in the Straw’s” racist lineage.
Good Humor, an ice cream company founded in 1920, then contacted RZA to create a new tune, and the result was released Thursday.
“When I was made aware of the negative history behind ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ I was biased because I also responded to it as a kid, running after the ice cream truck,” RZA said, reminiscing about his childhood on New York City’s Staten Island.
The artist told HuffPost he thought Good Humor probably chose him because of his previous songs with ice cream-related titles. He added that this opportunity gave him the “chance to do something that’s joyful with the only intent of bringing joy.”
RZA said he re-created the identifiable vibe of an ice cream song by focusing on major scales but added “the Wu” factor via a major and minor chord progression that provided jazz and hip-hop flavors.
“I made about six different jingles before I finally arrived at the one we chose,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about the business part of it; I was more thinking of the cultural relevance of a kid who chased after ice cream trucks. ... Being that kid then and now being someone who can add to that culture, this is something very special to me.”
The jingle, now available on ice cream van music boxes distributed by Nichol Electronics, comes at an important moment as America is striving to shed traditions rooted in racism, RZA said.
“We’re turning the soil and planting new seeds and growing,” RZA stressed, equating the transformation of America to his own transformation as an artist over three decades of music creation. “Think about the negative connotations of ‘Turkey in the Straw’ and then see where we’re at today ― a country that’s striving to evolve and live up to our original ideals. As an artist, I think that’s mandatory. That’s evolution.”