She steers her yellow Volkswagen Beetle convertible through the streets of North and Northeast Portland, a wide smile across her face, waving at children and parents. With her lime green wig, yellow bow, and heart-shaped red nose, she’s immediately recognized.
“Hey,” they shout. “There goes Nikki Brown Clown!”
Since 2011, Nikki Brown Clown has been a regular fixture in Portland—particularly in the city’s Black communities—hosting neighborhood events, book drives for children, and all-ages parties. One of her most recent events was last June’s annual Neighborhood Block Party in Northeast’s King neighborhood, which included face painting, live music, a children’s showcase, drumming by Chata Addy, and records from Portland’s preeminent DJ Lamar LeRoy. Nikki Brown Clown is such an energizing presence at events, dancing with children or sashaying at parades, that it seems like clowning has been her lifelong passion. But she fell into it mostly by accident, around 13 years ago, when a professional clown her friend had hired for her daughter’s birthday party fell through.
“I felt so bad for my friend, so I was like, 'Oh, I’ll just throw something on,’” Nikki says.
After performing at the birthday party, she walked down the street, still dressed in her slapdash clown costume, and was instantly mobbed by neighborhood kids, who were unaccustomed to seeing a clown casually strolling down the street, let alone a female, African American clown.
Years later, in 2011, her aunt was in charge of coordinating Portland’s annual Juneteenth celebration, and she asked Nikki to revive the clown and perform for children. Nikki bought secondhand clothes at Rerun, rainbow socks from New Seasons, and found what would become her signature green hair at a local wig store.
“I tried the best I could, but folks really took to it,” Nikki says. “They wanted to know who I was, if they could hire me. And I just laughed.”
Soon she was being asked to attend birthday parties and other events with enough frequency that she started to take it seriously, though many people were confused by her presence.
“When I first came out, adults didn’t know what to make of me,” Nikki says. “At first, they thought I was like Lil’ Kim or Nicki Minaj, or, you know, just being 'Portland weird.’”
Besides being a Black woman in a field traditionally dominated by white men, Nikki Brown Clown differs from professional clowns in that she’s not so much a performer as an active participant. She’s less concerned about putting on a show for an audience than getting people to loosen up and enjoy themselves.
“A lot of times, when I’m invited to an event, I’m not performing. I’m a guest,” she says. “I’m a spectator like you. We’re side-by-side, and that’s what makes it different. My character, she has a personality, a human quality, as opposed to being a standstill performer where you just sit and watch. We are all engaging together. It’s interactive.”
To learn more about makeup application and other clowning skills, Nikki applied to be an official clown at the 2013 Rose Festival. She received her official clown certificate, which also came with its own unique badge of distinction.
“I was awarded my first clown nose,” she says. “And instead of a big, gaudy nose, I chose a heart-shaped nose, to signify my love for my people.”
The following year, the Rose Festival Character Clown Corps named her Entertainer of the Year, and the year after, she was named Clown of the Year. But Nikki—a Portland native and graduate of Roosevelt High School—explains that instead of being motivated by accolades, she wants to be an asset to the community, to give something back to her people. Her stage isn’t limited to backyards and neighborhood parties; she’s at the school or church, or out on the block, offering support to folks in the city who historically have been disregarded or otherwise marginalized.
“I wanted to be the kind of community member that I wanted to see,” she says. “And that’s what the Black community in Portland was lacking. I wanted that superhero. Because of the displacement and gentrification of Portland, it makes it difficult to have what we used to have—these elders on the block that would celebrate you.”
As well as appearing at community events and parties, she also started the Nikki Brown Clown Library, a small collection of African American children’s books situated outside her former home on Northeast 10th and Emerson. Discernable by the colorful mural portrait of Nikki Brown Clown, the library is stocked predominately with donated books, which are free to take home. Books are also delivered to Black-owned shops, or handed out at neighborhood events.
“It is so amazing to be at these huge events like Good in the Hood, where there’s music, all these games and stuff, and then over by my booth, there are kids who are like, 'I can take this book for free?’” Nikki says. “And then they go and find a quiet place, or they sit in front of my booth and read, or I’ll read to them.
“It’s normal to see books in Portland. Portland doesn’t have a problem with that,” Nikki continues. “But the lack of diversity is terrible.”
Rekah Strong, Chief of Operations and Equity Officer at United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, relates how, as a recognizable and trusted figure in the community, Nikki Brown Clown’s responsibility goes beyond mere fun and entertainment.
“There aren’t a lot of African American mentors in the way that she shows up, and the way she has this ability to connect,” Strong says. “There’s something special about how various generations look up to her, and see her as a leader that brings a different kind of tremendous value to our community.”
In 2015, while performing at a Sunday Parkways event, a man on a bicycle approached Nikki Brown Clown and asked to take a photo with her. One year later, that man would become her husband, but his work obligated the newlyweds to relocate to Chico, California. Though she no longer lives in Portland, Nikki makes frequent appearances in the city, for community events like last June’s Neighborhood Block Party (held outside her library) and last July’s Back to School Book Fair, sponsored by Portland’s Black Parent Initiative (BPI).
Her next scheduled event is a Kwanzaa celebration at Matt Dishman Community Center on December 21. Partnering with BPI and Sabin CDC, the celebration will feature arts and crafts, dancing, food and drinks, a magic show, and Kwanzaa story time, as well as a marketplace featuring local, Black-owned businesses. She may now reside in Northern California, but Nikki Brown Clown hasn’t forgotten her folks. And her folks haven’t forgotten her.
“People are excited now when they see me in Portland, in my yellow Beetle,” she says. “Folks see that as a signal. The party has officially begun when Nikki Brown Clown shows up.”