‘Til the Clowns Come Home

by Mitch Gilliam

08/30/2016

Passing Oaklawn Cemetery, on our way to Mazzio’s, Michelle made her request: “Mitch, can you take off your hat?” she asked in her sunburnt Okie accent. “My daughter’s buried back there.”

Between muffled mouthfuls of pizza, Michelle and her friend Nitro spoke candidly of their lives and place within the “family.” Michelle has been on the street for 16 years, and for the past 8 months Nitro has called an underpass near downtown Tulsa home. The friends met at a local food bank, Iron Gate, when Michelle ran up to Nitro and nearly tackled him with a hug. Her loving assault was initiated by Nitro’s tattoo. Inked in bold letters on his throat is the word “JUGGALO.”

Juggalos and Juggalettes (female Juggalos) are fans of horror-core rappers Insane Clown Posse. They are a closely-aligned network of fanatics who follow the teachings of the Dark Carnival, spray each other with Faygo soda, cry out group chants (Whoop! Whoop!), and display hand signs (the W.C., or wicked clown).

Their musical subculture is the only one large enough to cast a shadow on Jerry Garcia’s dancing bears. Juggaloism is also, arguably, the most ridiculed and despised movement in pop-culture history. To TV’s Workaholics, Juggalos are “walking, talking diarrhea people.” To bloggers, they are fodder for derision and clickbait. The FBI considers them a gore-obsessed, axe-wielding “hybrid gang.”

For a large number of Oklahoma’s homeless, though, Juggalos are just what Nitro calls them: “family.”

“There are a lot of homeless Juggalos,” Nitro told me over a mountain of marinara and pepperoni. “And it makes it a lot easier when you’ve got homies around.” For Nitro, homies are everywhere.

While scooping up ranch dressing with our crust, an urban ninja, dressed in loose black fabric and some kind of balaclava, walked by the window. Michelle sprang up, tapped on the glass, and motioned for him to join. “That’s Mini—he’s one of us,” she said of the dusty shinobi. “I met him when he ran the tilt-a-whirl.”

Across the street after lunch, Nitro, Michelle, and Mini smoked Newports behind a corner store. The trio blasted ICP on my phone, danced to the “Chop Chop Slide,” and between moves threw out and received WHOOP WHOOPs from every passing transient.

Nitro invited me to come to Night Light that evening. The weekly outreach program provides food and other essentials to those who need them, and Nitro said I’d meet plenty of his tribe.

 

The time has come for the blood to run into the streets paved with gold

We have lived in the zoo of the ghetto for so long

And like animals we kill each other for the hatred of others

We must move into the suburbs and punish the rich for their ignorance

For the horror of death, that is part of our life in our neighborhood

And give them a taste of the same

—“Taste” by Insane Clown Posse

 

Growing up near Detroit, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, the founding members of Insane Clown Posse, have long known poverty, and as the “world’s most hated band,” they embody the fringe. Their lyrics embrace and champion the qualities of the destitute, endearing themselves to “have-nots” the world over. Their first full-length album, Carnival of Carnage, detailed a traveling fair that brought the violent horrors of poverty to America’s gated communities. They’ve followed this theme, in degrees both covert and overt, with every sequential release.

Though it’s not a demographic they track, Youth Services of Tulsa Street Outreach Coordinator DeJon Knapp estimates that, at peak Juggalo levels, 60 percent of their drop-in service recipients were wicked clowns.

In 2011, when the Juggalo identity dominated Tulsa’s 18–25-year-old homeless population, former Youth Services Tulsa [YST] worker Andy Wheeler posted a blog to the non-profit’s website titled “YST and the Juggalo Army.” In it, Wheeler takes the unpopular role of Juggalo apologist and applauds Juggalos for sustaining one another in the face of hopelessness and abuse. “If I was homeless, been beaten up multiple times and had all my possessions stolen…” Wheeler wrote, “I’d be President of the local chapter of the Juggalos.”

Also in 2011, the FBI officially classified Juggalos as a gang. The move (which is the subject of a continuing legal battle between ICP and the FBI) cut ICP’s merchandise sales by nearly half, and wreaked untold troubles upon non-gang Juggalos.

“I think the FBI gang classification really upset a lot of our youth who identified as Juggalos,” Knapp told me. “A lot of them worried they would get into more trouble with police.” Knapp said that fair or not, the gang affiliation forced YST to ask their population to “cool their Juggalo pride.” As a possible result of the classification, YST says they can now go days or weeks without seeing a homeless Juggalo youth.

Though Wheeler no longer works with homeless youth, he maintains respect for the Juggalos in spite of the broad strokes in which the FBI painted their faces: “In a way, we should be grateful for the Juggalos,” Wheeler told me. “The alternative is white supremacy or Irish Mafia.” Wheeler is right. Though some Juggalos do in fact bang, for true Juggalos, white supremacy is no option.

“The worst thing you can call a Juggalo is ‘bigot,’ ” Nitro told me. Indeed, ICP’s songs are staunchly anti-racist. Bigoted country folk are referred to as “chickens” in their songs, and “chickens” routinely reap the hatchet in their tales.

In prison, Nitro, who is white, refused to join the United Aryan Brotherhood. It was a refusal that, as a white man, made him an unprotected target for every prison gang. “I have homies that are black, homies that are Mexican,” he told me. “How can I stab a black homie just because a UAB tells me to?” It was in jail, in an act of brazen defiance and allegiance, that Nitro inked “Juggalo” onto his neck.

Child abusing piece of crap

A couple knee drops across your back

Rip your pants down for the cause

Take two bricks and clap your balls!

—“Imma Kill You” by Insane Clown Posse

Pointing to her study on L.A.’s homeless Juggalo youth, researcher Robin Petering, told the Family & Youth Services Bureau: “Identifying as a Juggalo may be a result of experiencing trauma and finding other peers that have gone through similar trauma in the past.”

Nitro’s initiation into the family supports her theory.

“From the time I was four, my older brother molested me,” Nitro told me. “When I was eight, I decided it was time for it to stop, so I tried to sink a claw hammer into the side of his head.”

A few short years later, when Nitro heard ICP rap about torturing pedophiles on their song “To Catch a Predator,” he found his anger vindicated. It was the first time he had encountered ICP, and he immediately sought out local Juggalos.

“Every therapist has always told me, ‘You’re messed up because… Well, because you’re just messed up’ ” Nitro said. But as he got closer to other Juggalos he found empathy, maybe for the first time in his life: “They all understood where I was coming from. They all had been through… some kinda sorta messed up situation like mine,” he said.

Apart from sharing in economic status and their histories of abuse, Nitro, Mini, and Michelle find affinity with ICP and other Juggalos because they, like themselves, “don’t give a fuck about anything.” Mini confirmed he doesn’t give a fuck by pulling a sharpened hatchet from his satchel, and brandishing it outside of the corner store.

But ICP does give a fuck about a few things, and one of them seems to be the impoverished, and our nation’s unwillingness to help them.

People in my city, they fight for their meals

He sleeps on a mattress stuffed with hundred dollar bills

A richie is the devil, he never will admit it

So I’m a take his money stack and stuff his face wit’ it

—“Piggy Pie” by Insane Clown Posse

 

In a recent interview with Vice, Violent J was asked what a Juggalo-run world would look like. “It would look a lot like it does today except there wouldn’t be a lot of homeless people,” he replied. “We’d make the churches open up their fuckin’ doors for the homeless that night.”

ICP has a long history of giving back to their less fortunate fans. The duo put on a pro wrestling and concert tour for charity, and admission to their yearly “Juggalo Day” concert in Detroit is paid with canned food.

Growing up poor, J and Shaggy often relied on food drives to eat, and demand that Juggalos leave “bullshit” food at home. “Don’t just grab that 10-year-old can of lima beans that’s been collecting dust in your pantry,” Violent J posted on the Juggalo Day event page in 2015. “Chef Boyardee! Campbell’s Chicken Noodle! Spaghetti-Os! Boxes of mac and cheese! Let’s feed Detroit’s hungry with some GOOD food!”

“There are no homeless Juggalos in Philly, because we won’t let Juggalos go homeless,” Rachel Paul told me over the phone. Paul is a frequent contributor to faygoluvers.net, the creator of the Dark Carnival Tarot deck, and as founder of Lette’s Respect, she is the de facto face of Juggalo feminism. Based in Philadelphia, Paul and her Juggalo Scrubs Crew (“not gang!”) follow in ICP’s charitable footsteps.

“We started traveling to Detroit for shows, and found a deep connection with the community,” Paul told me. “We bought a house for dirt cheap, completely renovated it, and opened it for Juggalos who were down on their luck.” Their house in Detroit, Scrub House, is one of several outreach homes in the United States, made by Juggalos for Juggalos.

Paul, and Juggalos in general, see their bond as one that transcends race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. This level of camaraderie and organization, she believes, is what provoked the FBI’s classification, and subsequent persecution.

“Poor people looking out for each other is automatically political,” she said. “Like, you can’t have poor people waking up like this.” Paul detailed these ideas in a faygoluvers.net blog post titled “Heyoka and the Little Park Behind the Prison.” In the post, she speaks on the FBI’s attempt to criminalize Juggalo culture, and encroach upon the little light that Juggalos still have in a dark world. Paul, whose grandfather was Lakota Sioux, compared modern Juggalos to the Heyoka, or “sacred clowns,” of her ancestors.

The Heyoka lived their lives “backwards” from the rest of society, holding a mirror to it. In sweltering weather, they would wear blankets and shiver. They would wear clothing inside out. They would speak backwards. Juggalos, as a profane pop fandom, are certainly separate from the sacred Heyoka. Still, Paul sees the parallels her grandfather outlined. “In this new-age Babylon, do the Juggalos and ICP embody the ancient spirit of the Heyoka?” she asked.

Paul told me she believes Juggalos, like the Heyoka, turn the world on its head. I asked her, as a leader in the Juggalo feminist movement (which took the annual Miss Juggalette pageant back from Ron Jeremy and the porn industry), how she felt about ICP’s liberal use of the word “bitch” in their music. “We love the word ‘bitch,’ ” she told me. “Go to a frat party, where they don’t say bitch in the open, and observe the gender dynamics. Then go to a Juggalo party where everyone says ‘bitch,’ but look at how we really treat and respect our women.” In addition to their hall of mirrors broaching of PC culture, Paul says Juggalos use gallows humor to illuminate the truth.

“The world is dark,” Paul told me. “And we bring the color, the light, and the carnival to it.”

It’s this backwards and grotesque sense of humor that the Juggalos inject into their world of darkness. For those lacking money or health insurance (especially in Oklahoma, where our governor turned down $3.6 billion in federal Medicaid assistance), something small like an abscessed tooth can lead to a hospitalization. Laughing in the face of death is a constant for the poor and homeless. And while the majority of the world won’t laugh at a song like “The Headless Boogie,” a woman like Michelle, who lost her 10-year-old daughter, may find comfort in singing, “Hey homie, I heard that you died, fuck that, it’s time to get live!”

Ain’t nobody jealous, everybody has they own

Nobody locked up, everybody, everybody is free to roam

Lookin’ at scrubby with a hottie on his side

Lookin’ at rich kids, poor kids

Everybody together on the same side

—“Let’s Go All The Way” by Insane Clown Posse

I made good on my promise to visit Night Light the evening after our Juggalo pizza party. The smell of grilled beef hung under the bridge and hundreds of Tulsans stood in line for hamburgers, water, and dog food. Bullish cops eyed the crowd, while three people climbed to the underpass alcove.

Standing above the outreach, and cupping their hands to their mouths, Nitro, Michelle, and Mini let roar a mighty “Whoop whoop!”

“WHOOP WHOOP!” came the retort, with an artillery shell boom. Erratic “whoops” cracked through the throng like popcorn in hot oil, and Nitro ran down the incline. “Hell yeah! That’s our family!” he said.


Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016