On a hot summer night in July, crowds of people gathered in a remote wooded area in front of a concert stage. Their faces were covered in clown makeup and their arms and legs painted with hatchetman tattoos.
By the end of the night, they'd all be covered in sticky, cheap soda.
This was the annual "Gathering of the Juggalos" in Oklahoma City, where thousands flock to see their favorite rap group, Insane Clown Posse (ICP).
The Juggalos aren't just ICP fans— they've built a cultural identity around the music, the rap duo, and what it represents. In turn, ICP has stood up for its followers as they've been harassed and profiled all over the country. Unwittingly, these two white rappers from Detroit have become some of the nation's most determined advocates for free expression.
On September 16, 2017, ICP will lead the Juggalos in a march on the National Mall in Washington D.C. They'll be protesting the FBI's decision to label the group as a "hybrid gang" back in 2011 in the agency's National Gang Threat Assessment. Since then, local police have used the report as guidance, resulting in rampant harassment and profiling of a group defined by its love for a music group.
ICP sued the FBI in 2014, but after three appeals, the case hasn't made it to trial. So now the group is heading to D.C.
"It's a publicity stunt," says ICP's Violent J (Joseph Bruce). "We want to say to everybody, 'we're not cool with that.'"
"[If] Juggalos are being fucked with, we got to do something about it," says Violent J's partner Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Utsler). "If that ties us into some First Amendment movement, whatever, we're First Amendment warriors. I don't know."
In the early 1990s, the rap duo from Detroit started to notice that its unique brand of scary horror rap was attracting poor, scrubby, white kids also from the Motor City.
"We represent people who weren't born with a silver spoon in their mouth but instead with a rusty fork," said Violent J in a 1995 interview.
So Violent J. and Shaggy 2 Dope started painting their faces like clowns as a point of pride. If society was going to treat the poor like carnival freaks, they would play along. The duo also started bringing bottles of the cheap soda pop Faygo on stage to spray the audience during their sets.
In 1997, ICP had its album pulled from stores by Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of Disney. A few years later the duo had a disappointing experience at Woodstock '99, a corporate reboot of Woodstock '69. So ICP decided to chart its own path away from the mainstream.
In 2000, the group held the first "Gathering of the Juggalos," which was around when their fans started to draw negative attention.
"They're the poor white people that everybody has no problem mocking," says pop culture writer Nathan Rabin, who's the author of the Juggalo-centric books You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me and 7 Days in Ohio.
But ICP used its pop-culture-punchline status to bolster its fan base. Getting demonized by society brought the community closer. Juggalos often refer to each other as family.
"We feel like whatever the magic is that's bringing us all together, whatever the magic is they're hearing, is the same magic we're feeling," says Violent J."This shit saved our lives too."
"It's very validating and exciting to be around people who love you just because of what you do and what you like," says Rabin.
Then came the FBI's gang classification, which ICP initially took lightly.