Remember when creepy clowns were all over pop culture? Rumors about people dressed as clowns lurking at night or chasing children around with bats made national headlines in 2016, while the 2017 remake of Stephen King’s It reminded us that clowns are capable of looking within our psyches, finding our deepest fears and pulling them out of their throats like an endless chain of multicolored hankies. In one odd example of societal coulrophobia, the FBI targeted the Juggalos — the clown-makeup-clad fandom for hip-hop act Insane Clown Posse — designating the group as a gang in 2011. (ICP, working with the ACLU, sued in 2014.) America hates clowns more than it hates addressing its real problems, apparently.
And yet! There’s been a shift in recent months, and much like the success of “Old Town Road” and socialism, we can thank the teens for it.
On the super-popular social video app TikTok, the Juggalo subculture has become something of a trend. Instead of hating on clowns, TikTok’s young users are identifying as them. On the app, users create endlessly varied video interpretations of the same audio track, and here they’ve turned the ICP song “Hokus Pokus” into a meme — with more than 320,000 remixes.
It begins with a girl’s voice saying “clown check,” a sound bite that’s not in the original track. It then cuts a few lines into the song where frontman Violent J yells, “I-C-fucking-P’s in the house!” If you’re familiar with the music, the lyrics aren’t hard to pick up: “Abracadabra, boom shaka day / I’m Violent J and I’m back like a vertebrae” — typical Juggalo references to magicians and skeletal structures.
A typical “clown check” meme goes like this: A girl appears in normal makeup, but once the song starts, she appears again in creepy clown makeup: Her mouth is lined in black and drawn into a Joker smile, while messy stars surround her totally white eyes.
The “Hokus Pokus” remixes are virtually endless. Some users come out in simple clown makeup, adding heavy blush to their nose and other colors to their face; others go all out, with full-blown special-effects makeup, costumes and fake sharp teeth.
Do these TikTok users actually know what they’re memeing? It’s unclear. Mostly, the trend seems to be an innocent opportunity to experiment with makeup, not pledge devotion to ICP. For this reason, many actual Juggalos aren’t thrilled with the meme. They’re disappointed to see that Juggalo culture doesn’t seem to be cited as the inspiration. It appears that many of the teens using the song didn’t even take the time to look up the words.
TikTok user @glitch_001, whose “Hokus Pokus” video has amassed over 480,000 likes, tells me, “I did it because I love the idea of crazy clowns so it works well with the song. [The reactions were] mostly negative because I didn’t know one part.”
In one Juggalo Facebook group I visited, the reactions to glitch_001’s video were almost unanimously harsh. “So everyone can talk shit on ICP and Juggalos and then do this shit?” wrote Becca, a member of the group. “Fuck them yuppie fucks,” said another user, posting under the name Dick Willie.
“For sure lots of fake-ass yuppies, but I’ve also seen some down-ass ninjas on that shit too, but for sure lots of wack shit where people don’t know the words,” said Matthew Arnett, a Juggalo from Colorado.
“I have used TikTok in the past and have seen lots of people dressing the part, but very obvious they don’t live the life of a Juggalo or know about the culture,” he tells me in a Facebook message. “I myself live it 24/7, 365 days a year. I attend the Gathering and other annual Juggalo events. It is what it is about the TikTok situation, but being a Juggalo I don’t place judgment, and any real Lo will tell you the same.”
Recently, another Insane Clown Posse song has started trending on TikTok: “The Neden Game,” which describes a dating game show similar to The Dating Game. In the song, a girl asks her potential partner how he’d make a memorable first impression on her parents, to which Violent J responds, “Let’s see, well, I’d have to think about it. / I might show up in a tux (HA!) but I doubt it.” (Usually, the videos end before Violent J’s next line, which is about showing up naked.)
This kind of conversational format works well on TikTok, where users often create duets with other users and play different roles. Naturally, this track too brings out the clown makeup — though some examples look more like Harley Quinn than actual Juggalos, frankly.
Maybe all the exposure is a good thing for Juggalos. Largely, the group has embraced anti-racist advocacy and workers’ rights; the 2017 Juggalo March on D.C. even got an endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America — but still, the subculture remains the target of ridicule and hate, and despite its rejection of organized crime, it’s still classified as a gang.
“I like that this music and culture are getting out there,” says Arnett. “A majority of people don’t understand us, and most Juggalos are amazing people who would give you the shirt off their backs, regardless of who you are.”