BY: DANIEL KORN
“My brother over here, I’ve known him for 11 years,” says a woman in a ripped tank-top and loose-fitting camo shorts, pointing to a skinny, green-haired, heavily-pierced guy behind her. “He’s not my blood, but he’s the closest thing I will have to blood.” This is a common sentiment running through filmmaker Sean Dunne’s documentary American Juggalo, which seeks to demystify a subculture which has been largely misunderstood. In the 20 years that it’s existed, Juggalos—devotees of the long-running, kind of terrible horrorcore rap duo Insane Clown Posse—paint their faces in clown motifs, drink copious amounts of a cheap knock-off soda brand called Faygo and get together once a year at a five-day festival in Ohio called “The Gathering of the Juggalos”. As of 2011, they’ve also been put on the FBI’s National Gang Threat Assessment along with such luminaries as the Crips and the Aryan Brotherhood.
This is, frankly, ridiculous, because the Juggalos are basically hippies. Well, the modern version of them at least, less a political movement and more a loose jumble of ideas and styles cribbed from a movement that once actually meant something.
Regardless, the point stands. Juggalos might be rough-around-the-edges, self-described white trash, and casually aggressive—yelling at passing cars, wrestling with each other, lighting cherry bombs—but they’re mostly peaceful people. Many of them are outcasts from broken homes who have found family in the community and therapy in the music.
The music itself is probably the primary motivator for the negative view of the subculture. Hippies were lucky enough to associate themselves with artists that have become timeless—The Beatles, Cream, Bob Dylan, and of course, The Grateful Dead. Insane Clown Posse are….not that. They’re stupid, aggressive, violent, and misogynistic. The beats are forgettable and the raps by Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope sound like a C-tier Cypress Hill. There is no universe where Insane Clown Posse becomes part of the Western art music canon. That being said, there’s a shocking morality to their music—targets of their over-the-top violence include domestic abusers, racists, and child molesters. Then there’s the final song on their 2002 album The Wraith: Shangri-La, which capped off their ambitious six-album “Joker Cards” project with an M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist—the hidden message behind ICP’s music has always been to follow God. So yes, it might hit you with all the subtlety of a metal bat upside the head, but the principles of the band are more positive than just about anyone would expect.
Like the music, Juggalo culture infuses these love-and-acceptance hippie ideals with gangster culture, and the two sometimes rub up against each other uncomfortably. The strangely uplifting message of the band is often obscured by the objectification of women, idolization of violence, and huge support of corporate culture that is emblematic of traditional hip-hop values. This is a culture that not only rallies around the image of a man running with a hatchet, but flaunts it regularly through various pieces of Psychopathic Records-owned “HatchetGear”. Media doesn’t cause people to do things, but it does affect how they view the world, and considering that it’s not totally surprising that a criminal element to the subculture would eventually arise.
It seems to be only a small portion of the culture that commits violent crimes—even national reports on American gangs admit that 85-90 per cent of the culture is non-violent and detectives who interact with the culture often stress that non-Juggalo citizens have no reason to fear them. The ethos of Juggalo gangs also runs very contrary to the values of the wider Juggalo culture, with things like hierarchical rank systems, guidebooks that detail gang responsibilities, and crimes committed with the intention of financial gain. The crimes themselves are usually grisly affairs involving bladed weapons, and it’s impossible to deny the influence of ICP’s lyrics in this respect. That being said, the actions have been decried by Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, as well as the wider Juggalo community.
So there are some undeniably rotten apples here, but in general, Juggalos are content to have a good time without bothering others. The atmosphere shown in American Juggalo will be familiar to anyone who’s been to a music festival centred on jam bands—rows and rows of tents and SUVs on grassy knolls, scantily-clad women with dreadlocks, youth high on a combination of drugs and alcohol espousing the virtues of a surrogate family. Some of the people in the crowd will commit some act of small vandalism, maybe get a little too fucked up for their own good, but for the most part it’s made up of decent people who just want to have a fun time. This is not a group of criminals. Quite the contrary in fact; there have been many charitable initiatives by the Juggalo community, like the Juggalo Cleanup Crew who pick up trash in Florida in honour of Stephanie Harris—a high school student who died of diabetes—and the Juggalos Outreach Program in Buffalo, a 24/7 service which refers community members to crisis hotlines and offers year-round volunteer work programs.
The lesson, then, is a slightly-adapted version of what your mom always told you—never judge a Juggalo by their face paint.
Images 2, 3, 4 by Daniel Cronin