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While e-mailing back and forth to arrange a meeting with a few area Juggalos, the moderator for the Arkansas Juggalo Family website seemed a bit hesitant about submitting to yet another article about local fans of horrorcore rap-metal clowns Insane Clown Posse, this time in advance of the band's Dec. 2 show at The Village.
"I am concerned about what the overtone of your article will be. The last few times that the Arkansas Times has taken interest in Juggalos, it was to mock them," wrote Josh Malcome, nom de clown, Payaso.
No doubt he's right. Robert Bell's critical review in the Times of last year's Insane Clown Posse show at The Village brought the "family" out in force to our Rock Candy blog, provoking a string of responses that ranged from belligerently defensive to aimlessly pissed. (http://bit.ly/icp_review)
Since then, things have become bleaker for Juggalos (or "ninjas," as they sometimes call themselves) demanding respect. What used to be an inside joke between the pop-culture savvy became a nationwide occasion to point and laugh after a couple Juggalo-baiting skits from "Saturday Night Live" went viral and brought Juggalo-mocking to the mainstream.
Then the community of fans returned to the media eye when part of the 20,000-strong crowd at this year's annual "Gathering of the Juggalos" bloodied reality TV star Tila Tequila by pelting her with rocks, bottles of Faygo soda (ICP's notorious drink of choice) and, reportedly, human feces harvested right out of a Port-a-Potty. Yikes.
So with a mountain of bad press behind their backs and another suspect writer approaching for yet another article, seven Arkansas Juggalos, decked out in Insane Clown Posse clothes, jewelry and tattoos, kept a video camera cued in on me during our meeting in Conway. You know, so I don't misquote anyone.
If you hadn't gathered, Juggalos are a unified front of self-defined misfits and outcasts.
"A Juggalo is someone who couldn't fit in with any other group, but ICP and the other Juggalos have given people a place to come together and be part of this and now I've got hundreds of thousands of friends I can call family," says DJ D.O.E. of local hardcore act Intoxxx. "It's awesome."
"We're a bunch of outsiders that decided, 'Hey, we'll be a family. I got your back, you got mine, we're not going to get picked on anymore,' " says Ouija Voss, a Juggalo out of Conway.
It's hard to deny the primal need for community and the necessary sense of self-worth that comes from being aligned with a group of the similarly minded. But it's even harder to wrap one's head around just how and why a nation of ostracized youths chose to congregate around Insane Clown Posse.
Far and wide, the duo is seen as a novelty act at best, creating some of the most profoundly depraved and indefensibly squalid music ever recorded, a distinction the band flaunts with its series of "Most Hated Band" shirts. At worst, ICP, for short, is seen in some parts of the country as the engine behind strings of violence by Juggalo gangs or "cults."
It may be a bit severe to classify the sub-culture as a nationally organized gang, as authorities in Utah and Arizona have done, but calling it a cult is less of a stretch. After all, the Juggalo nation consists of thousands of disenfranchised people finding "family," seemingly boundless acceptance and a new set of social rules as deemed by charismatic leaders who, in this case, just so happen to be two rappers in evil clown make-up.
That cult distinction is one the Arkansas Juggalo Family dismisses.
"No talking or explaining can do it," says Neon, a long-time Juggalo with the ICP-themed tattoos on his face to prove it. "The only way to get that image off us is through action."
But even in matters of charity, it's a reputation that precedes them. In late 2009, a donations drive organized by the Juggalos hit a brick wall after collecting clothes and food for the Dorcas House, a local domestic violence outreach project of Union Rescue Mission.
William Tollett, executive director of Union Rescue Mission, says the group offered its help, but the mission declined the gifts.
"We're a domestic violence facility. They are a group associated with violence, and they're inconsistent with our philosophy and mission statement, so we asked them to direct their donation elsewhere."
"The thing that drew everybody together as Juggalos is that ICP talks about things from their life," Payaso notes. "Domestic abuse, child abuse, stuff like that. The people who wanted to listen to that were people who experienced it themselves. That's how the group amassed itself and it's grown since then."
If the Arkansas Juggalo Family takes part in any violence, it was hard to tell during our two-hour talk. In fact, the meanest thing they mentioned the entire night was the time a fellow Juggalo woke up the day after his birthday to find his arms shaved and his hair crusted with mustard.
Are they an odd brood? Sure. They'll be the first to tell you that.
Did I leave any less puzzled by Insane Clown Posse and the whole Juggalo world? Not at all. It still boggles the mind.
Instead, I ended up pleasantly surprised by a nice chat with what may be seven of the most sincere Juggalos in the whole "Dark Carnival."
Does this mean I'll ever stop belly laughing at the Faygo-soaked absurdity of it all? Not on your life, ninja.