Thomas L. “Cannibal” Cottingham, 27, was laid to rest in Delaware last month, having been fatally stabbed defending a young mother and her child from an attacker in Wilmington’s Rodney Square district in mid-September.
On Wednesday night, however, the Electric Factory hosted a raucous celebration of the fallen emcee’s life, courtesy of hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse — and, of course, their fans, Cannibal’s extended Juggalo family.
“Everybody said we should do a moment of silence,” ICP’s Violent J said to Wednesday’s crowd, “but Cannibal was a Juggalo, and I don’t think he’d want a moment of silence. I think he’d want a moment of violence. A moment of wildness. A moment of loudness. How about we take 10 seconds for Cannibal and be as loud as we f------ can?”
He hardly had to ask.
The crowd erupted in a massive response — sad but celebratory, bittersweet, like remembering a passed friend often is. As chants of Cannibal’s name and shouts of “woop-woop,” the Juggalo calling, rang out, the band launched into their 1997 track, “Pass Me By,” rapping:
While you sit around cryin' for your dead friend
He's chillin' up there paid, getting mad ends
He's probably there tryna’ figure out why you're sad
He's on the beach gettin' fat, you got it bad
With that, the night continued into its Faygo soda-fueled spiritual cleansing ritual, somehow seeming to bring closure to a close-knit community that had suffered what was to many a devastating loss. Not by trying to forget the loss happened, but by embracing it fully, and actively addressing it. In that sense, the show wasn’t just a tribute performance — it was a wake.
And nobody throws a wake like the Insane Clown Posse.
More than a hero
Since his murder, Wilmington’s Cannibal has been heralded as a hero not only by ICP’s fans, but also by his city in general. Several memorials and vigils were held after his death, including one that brought some 100 people to Rodney Square late last month.
Now, as Wilmington Mayor Dennis P. Williams recently announced, a permanent plaque will be installed there to honor Cannibal’s memory.
A photo posted by Jessica �� (@bella_ragazzaxo) on Sep 15, 2015 at 3:09pm PDT
But for all the talk of Cannibal’s heroism, Juggalo feminist leader and friend Rachel Paul may always remember him as the incredibly talented rapper she befriended outside the Electric Factory about a decade ago.
“He was an amazing emcee,” Paul, a Philadelphia resident, says. “I don’t say that lightly. He was a great lyricist.”
Those skills were rewarded over the summer at the Gathering of the Juggalos, which has been described as Violent J and fellow ICP member Shaggy 2 Dope’s version of Woodstock. Cannibal ended up nabbing the top spot in this year’s Juggalo Psypher event, a freestyle rap competition held at the annual festival.
Wednesday’s show reflected the respect that title garners in the Juggalo community. Throughout the evening, chants of Cannibal’s name and area code "302" spontaneously cropped up, and it wasn’t uncommon to see his face emblazoned on T-shirts, stickers, and banners as Juggalos partied in his memory. So while he passed young, his impact in his community appears to have been wide-ranging.
ICP themselves had even acknowledged Cannibal’s talent posthumously, writing on their website that they saw the emcee “totally school it” at this year’s gathering. In that way, Cannibal was even able to affect the people who captured his attention so strongly.
“He was the top MC at the contest,” they wrote. “He was one talented ninja and from what we’ve heard…he was also an all around amazing person and Juggalo exemplifying what the Juggalo Family is all about.”
For her part, Paul agrees there.
“The way he died really embodied Juggalo ideals, laying down his life for what was right,” she says. “In his last moments, he showed wisdom and selflessness, and it comes from what the mainstream considers an unlikely source.”
Not a gang — a family
Insane Clown Posse has long been the self-described “most hated band in the world,” but that phrase became more literal in 2011. That year, a report issued by the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center labeled the group’s Juggalo fanbase a “loosely organized hybrid gang” — a designation its members say is discriminatory.
“What we have is an unconventional family,” Paul says of Juggalos. “It’s beautiful and tribal. It almost feels like our lifestyle is being attacked.”
ICP filed a lawsuit against the FBI thereafter with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, but the suit was thrown out in 2014 due to a lack of tangible “injuries suffered.” However, around the time of Cannibal’s murder, a federal appellate court ordered a Michigan court to hear the case.
“We’re thankful that the Juggalo family will finally get their day in court,” ICP wrote of the decision last month. “The FBI's labeling of Juggalos as a gang has wreaked havoc on thousands of lives, resulting in job losses, dismissal from military service, eviction, lost child custody, and constant harassment and profiling from law enforcement organizations all across the country.”
Looking at Cannibal as an example, it is difficult to see Juggalos as a gang in the same sense as the FBI’s report does. Heroic actions, after all, are not exactly something for which members of violent gangs are known — let alone rewarded for with permanent plaques on their own city’s streets.
Cannibal was, however, not without faults, having been arrested for assault in 2010 in connection with an incident that left another man with a fractured skull. Cannibal turned himself in to Delaware State Police shortly after the incident.
A video posted by Damian F'n (@inkmybody13) on Oct 7, 2015 at 10:38pm PDT
On their end, ICP also has a history of legal trouble, most recently facing a sexual assault lawsuit filed by a former publicist who also claimed she was wrongfully terminated. That case revolved around former ICP employee "Dirty" Dan Diamond, who allegedly harrassed the plaintiff with a glass sex toy. ICP's attorneys denied those allegations in 2013.
Still, though, that alleged incident doesn’t undo the good Cannibal did in defending that young Wilmington mother last month, just as ICP’s legal troubles don’t invalidate the community they’ve built. Especially considering that community often gives people a home and identity who might have never found one otherwise, however unconventional.
“Clowns invert the social order and mock higher-ups,” Paul says of that identity. “So ICP makes society look at itself in another way.”
While the Electric Factory took on a strong scent of root beer as Wednesday’s show advanced, that other way seemed to revolve clearly around one thing: fun. Not violence, not anger or a drive for revenge in some way, but simple enjoyment without concern for outside judgment.
There are few other ways to describe a band that celebrates a deceased fan’s life by covering concertgoers in soda and confetti while playing songs about eating dead bodies and killing rednecks. It’s a unique approach, to be sure, but unique has been working for Juggalos for almost three decades now, and as far as they appear to be concerned, that’s all that matters.
But that isn’t to say, however, that ICP’s tribute to Cannibal was insincere or inappropriate in some way.
Mourning, at least in the Juggalo community, doesn’t need to be a dirge, as American society often treats the process. Instead, it can be in the form of a mass Faygo communion with hundreds of people you consider family — and, what’s more, it will help.
After the show wrapped up late Wednesday night, attendees marched outside, again chanting Cannibal’s name, displaying banners and T-shirts bearing his face. As they reached the parking lot, the chants gave way to laughter as some Juggalos lingered around to wring the soda pop from their shirts and bask in the night's afterglow.
Then, something Violent J had said earlier in the night seemed to ring out: “We want to see you all in Shangri-La,” ICP’s preferred version of heaven.
And in that moment, with Cannibal’s help, the Juggalos seemed to have found it.