All smiles

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In the world of hip hop, calling someone a clown seems like it would be a major dis. But for Detroit artist DeMarcus Hughes, it's a compliment. Hughes, 37, aka Smiley the Hip Hop Clown, is a Detroit-based rapper, a G-rated G, an MC whose MO is to strip hip hop of its violent themes and sexual content and make it kid-friendly for grade school performances and children's birthday parties. At the same time, he tries to keep it from being insufferably corny for grown-ups within earshot.

"I'm really tired of cussing," he says, referring to hip hop. "Everything's based around sex and violence, disrespecting ladies. It disappoints me because most people that buy the music are young people, and young people don't look at music or entertainers as entertainment; they look at it like that's the real world. They try to emulate that. So I wanted to show them that hip hop is for everyone, including children."

He shares the lower level of a weathered duplex on the city's northeast side, near the State Fairgrounds and I-75, with his 11-year-old daughter, Imani. His front door is marked with the words "Smiley the Clown" scrawled in black marker, with an arrow pointing to a doorbell, topped with a smiley face.

He's a familiar sight around this neighborhood, strolling down the sidewalk in partial whiteface, mismatched sneakers, billowing Afro and puffy, raggedy clothes, or driving the Smiley Mobile, an old, gray Chevy Caprice wagon painted with Tyree Guyton-esque polka dots.

"Hey, Smiley," says a neighbor standing on the front lawn, in between shouts to a friend living in the duplex's upper level. Kids pass on bikes and smile and wave. Inside his home, on a desk, is a receipt from a car repair shop — under name and address, the mechanic simply wrote "Smiley."

"Outside of being a clown, I'm very low-key. I'm a private person," Hughes says. "Smiley the Clown is totally the opposite — hyper, energetic, fun, attention-getting, the life of the party."

Being Smiley is a full-time job of parties and school rallies where he DJs, makes balloon animals, gives motivational speeches and, most importantly, performs his repertoire for the kids, including such songs as "I'm the King," "On the Block" and "Smiley's Here." The lyrics prod kids to exercise, instruct them on new dances, or — in classic hip-hop fashion — brag that he's the No. 1 clown.

Hughes has also produced his own videos, some filmed right in his front yard, featuring neighborhood kids singing or demonstrating new dances. The charmingly amateurish quality of the videos lends them a sincerity that, in a more polished production, might seem trite or forced.

Hughes grew up on the city's west side until, at 16, he went to stay with relatives in a small town up North, to escape the inner city. After high school he joined the Navy, served two years, and made his way back to Detroit, getting by on small jobs, lawn-cutting and shoveling snow, until he honed his craft as a rapping clown 14 years ago. He earned the nickname "Smiley" in the military for his ever-present grin, a name he formally adopted when he became, in his words, "Detroit's Hypest Clown."

He's not the only wholesome hip-hop clown in town, though. There's also Kuddles the Hip Hop Clown (36-year-old Dawn Wilson) who bills herself as the Cutest Clown in Motown.

"I'm on a mission to restore the innocence of hip hop," she says. "My songs promote peace, love and harmony." There's also Smiley's girlfriend Candid Bradley, 29, who goes by the name Hyphy the Clown, who also raps on some Smiley tracks. Then there's E'fee the Clown (Elise Edwards), 55, who sometimes works with Kuddles. She's a holy clown, spreading the gospel with face paint and funny shoes from her Cass Corridor base at Detroit Unity Temple.

But Hughes isn't really part of some local collective of hip-hop clowns; in reality he's just a lone, well-meaning entertainer from the neighborhood, a straight-laced fellow in a foul-mouthed genre, an old-fashioned performer mashing it up with a modern art form, whose innocent persona sprang up improbably from one of the city's rougher areas.

"We have too many negative forces out here, and I'm just trying to be a force that's positive," says Hughes, who's turned his back yard into a playground for neighborhood children, with trampolines, a basketball net, a swimming pool and loaner bicycles. "My goal is to bring smiles on everybody's faces. It brings out so much positive energy that I can do this until I'm 70, like Bozo. Because it's not a job to me, it's my life."

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