‘Equality will come by raising each other up’

By: Andy Kozlowski, | Madison - Park News | Published December 20, 2016

MADISON HEIGHTS — The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando June 12 sent shockwaves not only through the gay community, but across the nation as a whole. Nearly 50 people were murdered that night — a cruel reminder that hatred exists in this country, and for many people, a call to action to fight hate with love.

For Nikki Holland, of Madison Heights, it gave her a new sense of purpose. Her folk-rock band, Nikki Holland & The Dirty Elizabeths, came up with a slogan, “Until We Are = Be >”, rallying people to take the high road. Their aim is to help minorities who may be the target of hate crimes, with proceeds from their merchandise going to the victims.

“Hate crimes have been a hot topic, and became the root of fear during the election season,” said Holland in an email. “Through our message of being ‘greater than,’ we remind each other that equality will come by raising each other up.

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“The Orlando Pulse shooting shook me to my core because it could have been anyone there,” she said. “My band is comprised of members of the hetero and homosexual communities, but we all could fall victim to hate such as this, for something as simple as being out at night around people others don’t agree with.”

Holland is her band’s singer-songwriter and also plays rhythm guitar, ukulele and mandolin. She is originally from Las Vegas. Her band includes lead guitarist Ray Kurtz, of Troy, once a touring musician from Seattle; bass player Jeremy Cohen, of Sylvan Lake, formerly of Los Angeles; drummer Ron Mayday, of Romeo; and keyboardist Jeannie Tapp, of Clinton Township.

The group plays every other month at the Elks Lodge in Ferndale, among other places. They’ve done shows at pride events ranging from Indianapolis to Windsor, Ontario. Holland started recording in Royal Oak in 2012; after her first CD, “Hold On,” was released in 2013, she put together the band and it’s been going strong ever since. Holland describes her group’s style as “a blended sound of country, rock and reggae undertones.”

The Dirty Elizabeths try to play an active role in the community by supporting good causes. After performing at a charity event for an animal shelter in Flint, the band started asking people who attend their free shows in Ferndale to bring clean towels, which are donated to the Animal Welfare Society of Southeastern Michigan in Madison Heights. So far they’ve gathered a half-dozen large contractor bags’ worth of clean towels, plus cash donations from the Elks.

But it’s their message against hate that seems to have resonated the strongest. The shirts featuring the slogan “Until We Are = Be >” have sold all over. A member of the Peace Corps, now in the Philippines, saw the shirt while home with her family in Maryland and ordered one; she sent Holland pictures of her wearing the shirt in Ecuador. An exchange student from Thailand ordered one for himself, as well as his girlfriend who is now abroad in England. Over the summer, Dan MacDonald of 93.9 The River read a message that goes with the slogan — featured on the band’s upcoming CD in 2017 — to a festival crowd in Windsor.

After the Pulse nightclub shootings happened, Holland took the proceeds from the merchandise and donated them to the victims and families during a rally in Ferndale, with the help of Ferndale activist coordinator Julia Music. Holland also devised three new shirt styles, featuring an additional screen on the back with a ribbon and the message “Not One More Life. Stand Strong.” Proceeds from these shirts have also been set aside as donations to victims of hate crimes.

“Stand Strong” comes from the title of a song written for Holland’s former foster son. The song was recorded with members of the Irish band Blackthorn and local rapper Siv. Bracelets featuring an alternate version of the message — “Stand Strong, Mentor a Kid” — will also be sold, benefiting groups that support fostering/adopting kids.

“Stand Strong” is also the message The Dirty Elizabeths are using to help raise money for the legal fund for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in its fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Earlier this month, the band played a benefit concert and sold shirts for a suggested donation of $10 to $20, with proceeds going to the legal fund. Similar in design to the equality shirts, these shirts featured the slogan “Water = Life. Stand Strong with Standing Rock.”

Holland’s fiancé, Shari Drayer, said that people need to stand up for those who are oppressed, and that Holland understands this.

“When it came to Orlando and the renewed reality that hate crimes are very real, we knew something had to be done. It was hard to sit at my job and listen to people talk about sports and news but not the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub. I would come home devastated and hurt, and Nikki jumped at the chance to help these people,” Drayer said in an email. “This was also a chance to help others by raising awareness and spreading positivity in the wake of a tragedy. Not only to raise awareness locally within the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, but among allies who saw the unnecessary tragedy and loss. It could’ve been anyone’s family, friends or loved ones.”

Holland said it’s about giving a voice to the vulnerable.

“Intolerance is awful, and we cannot go quietly into the night about it,” Holland said. “Hate and misunderstanding causes pain to the elderly, to people of color, to people with special needs, to the LGBT community, and to so many other minorities.

“I have realized something about the LGBT community that is truly admirable,” she continued. “When they mourn by candlelight vigil — when they stand up against hate — they do so in peaceful song and joined hands. If our band can cause people to sing and dance, to laugh and join hands, then we are doing this the right way.”

For more information about Nikki Holland & The Dirty Elizabeths, including the equality shirts, visit www.NikkiHollandMusic.com.