Jester hitched a ride out to the dusty Indiana campground the night before without a cent to his name, but he wasn’t worried. He didn’t need money—he knew his Ninjas would provide.
Sure enough, less than 24 hours later he was counting a stack of sweaty singles, arranging pennies into tidy little columns, and double-checking his math in mutters till he confirmed with a shout that he had it: $210. The exact cost of one ticket to the Insane Clown Posse’s annual music festival/bacchanal, the Gathering of the Juggalos.
Dumbfounded, I stopped him and asked, “So, strangers just gave you all that money so you could get in?” He paused, almost offended, and replied, “I have been to 10 Gatherings, and every time, I’ve helped at least two Ninjas get in. No one gave me that money. Karma gave me that money. I earned my place. I belong here.” Instantly he turned on his heel like a drill sergeant and stomped off toward the gate, raising his arms to the sky and shouting “WOOP WOOP!” to the heavens.
I didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to play the 20th annual Gathering of the Juggalos this year, but I certainly didn’t think I would be getting schooled on Buddhist philosophy from a sweaty guy in a Realtree Camo hat with less than a full set of teeth.
Over two decades, the Gathering has changed venues nine times and seen wild swings in attendance. It’s been tear-gassed by police and blocked by several city councils. It’s been the focus of countless snarky documentaries and more than one SNL skit. And yet, the Gathering keeps going where most festivals have failed. Fyre Fest couldn’t make it a day without descending into a Hironymous Bosch nightmare and Woodstock 50 couldn’t even make it past presale. Sasquatch disappeared into the woods, Fuck Yeah Fest! never sold enough tickets to match the hype, and even the legendary All Tomorrow’s Parties went out in a blaze of unpaid artists.
Totally independent, with zero corporate sponsors, the Gathering is still organized and curated by ICP themselves, along with Psychopathic Records boss Jumpsteady, and every year they assemble the most insane and unique lineup of any festival in America—I watched Morris Day & the Time and GWAR, back to back, on the same night.
To know of the Gathering is to have already formed an opinion of the Gathering, whether you’ve been there or not. To outsiders, it can be the butt of an endless joke: people in clown makeup spraying each other with Faygo Red in a four-day fever dream of drugs, sexism, semi-pro-wrestling, and “flyover state” music. For the Juggalos it’s Coachella, Shangri-La, the Hajj, a family reunion, and, yes, semi-pro-wrestling, all crammed into some unfashionable campground. The truth is somewhere in between—and somehow, more bizarre and beautiful.
There’s no shortage of clown makeup, that's true, and in less than 24 hours I heard the directive “Show me your butthole!” close to 100 times. But more astonishing were the actual people behind the face paint and the megaphones ordering me to… well… you know… show them things. I made small talk with a bedraggled giant in a bathrobe and boxer shorts named Gilgamesh who offered me money to help me get in less than five minutes into our conversation. I met Nanaho, from the Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan, wearing beautiful flowing kimonos and clown makeup, who explained to me she has taken six trips to America, all to see ICP, only after having seen a Juggalo character in Grand Theft Auto 5.
I heard about several folks who’d traveled from Australia and saw a French flag inscribed with the phrase “Juggalos of France.” A young black guy wore a shirt showing the Great Milenko (a clown of note in the ICP universe) burning the Confederate flag. I saw Abir, in a hijab, walking across the mainstage field with a crew of friends in various states of undress and body paint. When I asked her how she got into this scene, she shrugged and said, “Reggie from the laundromat I work at, he is into them, and now I’m into them.”
Public nudity, wanton sexuality, and heavy drug use were all rampant, but perhaps the most shocking thing I saw at the Gathering was… families. Normal, happy, regular old moms and dads, hanging out and crushing some beers while their kids ran around eating corn dogs and listening to Oujia Macc rap “Body Drop.”
“We have seven kids between us,” said Elizabeth West, pointing to her husband, “and all of them are Juggalittles.” What made her introduce her children to this world? She laughed. “Juggalos are the kindest group of people…in the most fucked-up way.”
That kindness is tangible at the Gathering. I saw strangers buy each other food, give each other money, and welcome each other into their campgrounds to break bread together, drink together, and shout “Show me your butthole!” at passersby… together. I’ve never been in such a strange, diverse, and antagonistic crowd of people, many of whom are wasted on every manner of intoxicant, but I didn’t see a single fight.
They fucked with you, they shouted at you through megaphones, but it never felt mean. It felt like your older brother teasing you, all in good humor—as long as you kept your own sense of humor, of course, and came back with a barb in response. Whatever your trip, no matter the color of your freak flag, everyone seemed welcome.
You think anyone will even bat an eye at your weird shit after they’ve just seen a woman commanding the leashed clown she’s walking around on all fours to suck her toes in the middle of the dirt road? This is a forest full of weirdoes who have rejected, or been rejected by, their communities. So they’ve come together to form their own community (which the FBI still classifies as a gang). It should come as no surprise that they're so willing to embrace all this insanity, to live and let live the way they do. Acceptance comes naturally to a group of outcasts who still remember what it feels like to be cast out.
The Juggalos make easy targets: They paint their faces, they drink offbrand soda, they love a band that doesn’t understand how magnets work. But for 20 years now, they have managed to organize, fund, and support a festival devoted to everything they love, filled with people from all over the world, just like them.
Looking back on my 24 hours at the Gathering, I can’t help but reflect on the communities I’ve belonged to and their own struggles with organization, funding, and support. Where the hell is our music festival celebrating its 20th year? And, if we ever did get it together, get something going, and manage to keep it going for two decades, would I be able to show up there, without a penny to my name, and trust that everyone there would chip in to buy me a ticket?