Coming Home at the March of the Juggalos
Walking eastbound from the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC, at around noon on September 16, 2017 made for an odd scene. At the east end of the National Mall — the park that stretches from the Capitol building past the White House to the Lincoln Memorial — children with moms and dads in colorful costumes of red, white and green, and others in blue and white, assembled for parades to celebrate the independence days of Mexico and Guatemala, respectively. Closer to the center of the Mall, just east of the Washington Monument, was the self-proclaimed “Mother of all Rallies,” where a speaker railed at 200 or so fellow right wing activists against corruption and incompetence in Washington. On the other side of the monument, tents were set up for CureFest, an event to support the fight against childhood cancer. From there, I continued west toward the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial, which is where things took a weird turn.
Packs of people of all kinds, from toddlers to the elderly, morbidly obese to skinny as a rail, most of them, but not all, white, roamed up and down the sidewalks wearing baggy clothes and Hot Topic–style accessories. There were a lot of oversized, shin-length shorts, garish haircuts and teeth that hadn’t seen a dentist at some pivotal juncture in the distant past. Some wore their faces painted in black and white like happy, evil clowns.
I took a seat on a bench and a middle-aged woman in a purple dress with long, curly hair and a bald spot at the crown of her head rode past me on a bicycle, swerving side to side. Her legs were extended out straight, like a child, and a speaker on her bike blared rap music with carnival sound effects. Now and then someone would shout “whoop WHOOP!” and others around the reflecting pool similarly dressed would reply in unison: “whoop WHOOP!”
After sitting there alone for awhile, observing, I walked to the center of the action, a stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and joined in the call-and-response, shouting “whoop WHOOP!” with the others in reply — for I knew what this was. These were devoted fans of the rap group Insane Clown Posse — in DC that day to protest their official designation by the FBI as a criminal gang. They call themselves juggalos (and juggalettes, for the ladies) and unbeknownst to them or even, in that moment, me, I, clean shaven, with a short, conservative haircut, skinny pants and a collared shirt, was, in a way, one of them.
As the juggalos might put it, I fuckin’ love ICP.
My exposure to Insane Clown Posse came in or around the 6th grade through my best friend, Sam. We’d hang out in his room with candles and incense going, listening to ICP’s third album Riddle Box on repeat, and do whatever — look at baseball cards, draw, disarm shotgun shells and use the gunpowder to build tiny bombs in Tic-Tac boxes, plot a walk to Taco Bueno for a burrito or scheme to steal a cigarette from his dad. A lot of what we did was talk about Sam’s friends at school, girls he knew, his enemies, his allies, the shenanigans they’d get up to and the little nuggets of culture that, in that age before Facebook and Google, filtered from his friends to Sam, and from Sam to me. As far as I know, back then neither of us had ever used the Internet.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know Sam. We grew up together from infancy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we were thick as thieves before we could walk. But we never went to the same school and, though I was older than him by two months, Sam was a grade ahead of me. He was also braver, better looking, funnier and possessing of whatever that ineffable thing is that makes a kind and good-hearted pre-teen boy cool to his peers. I was awkward, anxious and, frankly, nerdier. And we both knew it. When I finally got out of my dorky super-tight jeans and into a baggy pair, Sam sang a little song, “You’re a wanna be…of meeee,” and I wasn’t even mad. He was right. When we’d go out for adventures in the neighborhood with his friends, who sometimes tried to push me around, Sam was my protector. By the time I transitioned from elementary to middle school, he was already established: a seventh grader with some experience under his belt. Sam had friends at school and he knew shit. I had Sam.
And through him I had Insane Clown Posse, two white, high school dropout, horrorcore rappers from Detroit named Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, whose lyrics were impossibly, deliciously profane to boys who only a handful of years earlier had been daring each other to say cuss words. ICP lyrics are unthinkably foul.
This seems like a good time to address just what, exactly, we’re dealing with here.
Here are lines from the song “Chicken Huntin’,” one of our favorites from Riddle Box.
Barrels in your mouth, bullets to your head
The back of your neck’s all over the shed…..
To cut a chicken, trigger’s clickin’
Blow off his head but his feet still kickin’
This is from “Cemetery Girl,” also off Riddle Box.
Girl that made me happy, a girl that made me cry
A girl that passed away back in 1985
A girl I plan to marry, a girl I plan to wed
A girl that I can choke because my baby is already dead
In case the meaning is lost on you, that describes an act of sadomasochistic necrophilia. He’s screwing and choking a corpse.
Eventually Sam got a CD of ICP’s 1997 album release, The Great Milenko. Here’s a verse from one of our favorite tracks, “Halls of Illusion.”
Back to reality, your son’s on crack
And your daughter’s got nut stains on her back
And they both fuckin’ smell like shit
And live in the gutter
And sell crack to each other
When they were kids you’d beat ’em and leave ’em home
And even whip ’em with the cord on the telephone
And that reminds me man, hey ya gotta call
Watch your step to Hell
It’s a long fall
Lyrics like these have made Insane Clown Posse the target of censors, concerned parents and religious zealots for decades. In the 1990s, a Disney subsidiary signed the group to release The Great Milenko, then demanded changes to the lyrics of several songs, which ICP made, then, under pressure from the Southern Baptist Convention, pulled the album from the shelves anyway (the album was eventually released by a different label). In 2017, the Gathering of the Juggalos — a massive annual gathering of ICP fans — was held in Oklahoma City, where local media fanned hysteria and the local police were, to put it as charitably as possible, extremely exacting enforcers of the law.
Perhaps lyrics like the above greased the wheels when, in 2011, the FBI released its “National Gang Threat Assessment” labeling the Juggalos — that is to say, hardcore fans of Insane Clown Posse, many of whom have ICP tattoos, attend the Gathering, and engage in other behaviors associated with juggalo culture (like drinking a cheap soft drink called Faygo, for example) — “a loosely organized hybrid gang.” The FBI conceded that most juggalo crimes are “sporadic, disorganized, [and] individualistic” but, citing “open source reporting” (which usually amounts to what most people call “the news”), the FBI asserted that “a small number of Juggalos are forming more organized subsets and engaging in more gang-like criminal activity, such as felony assaults, thefts, robberies, and drug sales.”
That designation is what the juggalos who assembled at the Lincoln Memorial were protesting. As it turns out having tattoos, car decals, friends and hobbies associated with an FBI-designated gang has drawbacks. ICP fans say they’re being targeted and harassed by law enforcement, and speakers at the Juggalo March on Washington spoke of people being fired from jobs, disallowed from joining the military and losing custody of their kids for being juggalos and juggalettes.
Protestors at the march carried signs ridiculing and lambasting the designation:
“I am a Marine Veteran Not a Gang Member”
“Foolish Bunch of Inbreds”
“Clown Lives Matter”
“Family Saved Our Life. Not a Gang”
“Stop stereotyping juggalo’s (sic) as violent uneducated criminals. We are you, you are we, the same but different. Whoop WHOOP!”
The protesting juggalos broke out repeatedly into a chant of “Fa-mi-ly! Fa-mi-ly!” Speaker after speaker told stories of how the music of Insane Clown Posse, and the fellowship of other juggalos, came into their lives at a particularly dark time and, in some cases, saved their lives.
For a gang rally, the entire atmosphere was supremely festive. Some of the gangbangers looked to be about nine years old. Some were disabled. The closest thing to an act of violence I witnessed was one juggalo tackle another and start dry humping him with the ferocity of a tiny dog. The most menacing thing about the event was a group of black-masked non-juggalo Antifa people who showed up, ostensibly to provide security. From the juggalos themselves, on stage and in the crowd, I heard and saw only expressions of love (“I fuckin’ love you!”), silliness (“Are you guys here for the clown orgy?”), and the principle that seems to illuminate the innermost soul of juggaloness: radical self acceptance. In ways overt and subtle, juggalos seem always to be saying: “I’m doing me; you do you. This is me and if you don’t like it, I don’t even care enough to be mad at you. Let me be.”
I also heard a bunch of eerily familiar words and turns of phrase, such as juggalos — who are by and large white, like me — calling each other homie and ninja, chants of “Fuck-That-Shit! Fuck-that-shit!” and that “whoop WHOOP!” call that kept going around. Even little things, like the way Violent J and Shaggy drop the word “fuckin’” at odd places in a sentence and, out of apparent laziness, use words that do not exist but nonetheless make perfect sense, to wit, from Violent J’s speech at the rally in DC: “…governmently landscaped trees….” None of these alone would have registered as unusual, and I’m fully aware that there are plenty of white non-juggalos who call each other homie and say “fuckin’” a lot. But all slathered together it was weirdly reminiscent of something, like catching a delicate smell in the air that calls forth a powerful but hazy memory. The scene evoked a fierce upwelling of nostalgia in me and reminded me of the way I myself sometimes talk to my close friends. And all of it reminded me of Sam.
In the late 1990s, juggalo culture, such as it was, didn’t exist quite as it does today. Usage of the word “juggalo” in reference to ICP fans only came into being during a live ICP performance in 1994, and ICP hadn’t yet permeated the mainstream with its performance at the disastrous Woodstock ’99 festival. There had not yet been a Gathering of the Juggalos (that would come in 2000). But little pieces of juggalodom, like whoop WHOOP, were fully in place, and there were certainly juggalos out and about in the world.
But I knew nothing of them. Indeed, I knew almost nothing about Insane Clown Posse. When I completed a math assignment in middle school by turning a graphing exercise into a drawing of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, I colored them brown because I thought they were black. I only knew that I loved their music and that I listened to them all the time with my best friend, who sometimes, for no apparent reason, would holler at me from across a field, or the backyard, or his room, “Whoop WHOOP!” Sam was my only window into the world of ICP, and, thus, whatever juggaloness came my way was filtered through him and intermingled with the rest of our interests and lexicon. Until I learned that it’s a thing juggalos yell at each other at ICP shows, I just thought Sam had been yelling “whoop WHOOP!” at me all those years for the hell of it.
As it happens, the music of ICP also found me at an especially dark time. In addition to social isolation and the general angst of being a young teen, my life at that age felt pummeled by death and loss. And something about ICP spoke to me — the over-the-top violence and vulgarity, sure, but also the gallows humor, the unpretentious fun and the hope and fundamental goodness that lay hidden at the heart of ICP songs. These are the same reasons, I have to assume, that ICP’s music resonates with so many of its hardcore fans, the juggalos.
Here’s a bit from ICP’s “Headless Boogie,” another favorite track from Riddle Box.
Hey yo, I heard that you died
Fuck that, it’s time to get live
Dead bodies let’s all take a ride
Lean to the left and slide
That’s a song about an undead dance party and like most ICP songs it’s super danceable and a ton of fun. But it’s also more than that. It’s a song about a dead person literally coming back to life. That song “Chicken Huntin’” that I quoted above is about exacting revenge on an evil redneck, an archetype for the villains in the lives of many of ICP’s mostly white working class fans. “Cemetery Girl” is about necrophilia, but it’s also about being able to hold on to a connection with a lost loved one. For all its crudeness, “Halls of Illusion” is at essence a morality tale about the misery caused by an abusive, dead-beat father and about the father paying for his crimes.
ICP’s music is anthemic and easy to rap along with, but it serves a higher god than fun alone. The music deals in truly awful subject matter — murder, rape, torture, death, etc. — and in so doing offers the kind of release that can only come from real, raw, authentic experience. Yes, graphic lyrics about rape and murder are ugly and profane, but in the real world — and certainly the world many of ICP’s fans live in — people get raped and murdered. Insane Clown Posse takes the ugly, awful, bottomless pain of real life, shines a light on it, gives it ridiculous clown makeup, carnival music, a beat for you and your friends to bob your heads along with and sticks two righteous middle fingers in the air, saying: Fuck that, it’s time to get live, dead bodies let’s all take a ride, lean to the left and slide.
In so doing, it speaks to the most ancient truth there is. The Buddhists call it non-duality. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius offers it as essential wisdom to his departing son: “This above all: To thine own self be true.” Twelve-step recovery programs implore participants to “live life on life’s terms.” In the black American vernacular of the 90s and 2000s people used to sign off by reminding each other to “keep it real.” They’re all saying the same, ultimately ineffable, thing: face reality, be yourself, and accept each moment as it comes. If clown makeup and obscene rap helps anyone accomplish that slippery, all-important task, power to them.
As we grew up, Sam and I grew apart in the way of brothers. Eventually I moved away and the overlap in our lives faded with time, but we usually met up to check in with each other when I came back to town. Over the holidays in 2010, I tried a few times to get ahold of him without success and several months later, in the summer of 2011, Sam died of a heroin overdose.
Sam was a million things other than a teenage ICP fan (or, for that matter, a heroin addict). He was brilliant and hilarious and his life was as multifaceted and full and impossible to put into words as anyone’s. But here are three things, from among the many that Sam was, that have relevance here: generous with his love, accepting of other people and fundamentally decent to the core of his core.
At the Lincoln Memorial on that sunny, blue Saturday, surrounded by juggalos and juggalettes whoop WHOOP!–ing each other, chanting “Fa-mi-ly! Fa-mi-ly!” and preaching love and radical self-acceptance, I was overcome. I felt my past washing up to me from forgotten shores. I heard my deceased best friend shouting at me like we were kids again. I felt the love of the juggalos and comfort in knowing that I didn’t have to hide — that I could, in that tender moment, be fully, authentically myself. So that’s what I did. I walked off to the side of the grand staircase that leads up to the enormous statue of Abraham Lincoln, sat on the steps and cried.
According to the FBI, juggalos are a gang because some small number of their kind are engaged in organized criminal activity. Well, I can think of two other groups of not particularly attractive people who like to get together at big conventions, act silly and wear over-the-top costumes, a small number of whom have formed “more organized subsets” that engage in serious criminal activity: Republicans and Democrats. Ever heard of Watergate? Rod Blagojevich? The juggalos are no more a gang than the Republican Women’s Club of Sheboygan.
And yet — in an act that, funnily enough, speaks volumes about government incompetence and overreach that the right wing protesters on the Mall that day were bent out of shape about — the FBI has carelessly slapped the gang label on some of the more vulnerable and powerless people in our society.
In 2014, ICP and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the FBI on behalf of the juggalos to remove them from a list that includes the likes of MS-13 and the Crips. The case was thrown out but the plaintiffs are appealing and the issue remains unresolved.
I hope they win.
Denver Nicks is a journalist, producer, regular contributor to National Geographic Traveler and a former staff writer for TIME. He is the author of two books, PRIVATE: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History, and Hot Sauce Nation.