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Pinqy Ring Uses Hip-Hop To Build Hope

Written by on September 12, 2022

“Telling your story is paramount to all of our liberation.”

– Pinqy Ring

Chicago-based artist Pinqy Ring finds the intersection of music and social justice.

Marisol Vélez, better known by her stage name Pinqy Ring, uses the power of hip-hop to help others just as it helped herself. She uses her music as a platform for spreading knowledge and sharing her story with others.

Vélez knows the challenges of a life impacted by trauma and adversity, as she’s walked that path before. After suffering severe injuries in a car crash and falling into a life of apathy, Vélez found her saving grace in hip-hop.

“It gave me the platform and language to speak on my story, and the story of many marginalized communities,” she explained.

Photo courtesy Pinqy Ring.

Nowadays, Vélez can be found dropping bars and sharing her hip-hop story across the world. She works with the State Department’s Hip-Hop Diplomacy program, as well as her own Pinqy Project, to facilitate emotional learning, storytelling and teaching, and to provide guidance to youth in underserved communities.

It may come as no surprise Vélez uses her own musical platform to educate and advocate, as heard in her new single “Victory,” featured in Vocalo’s July “In Rotation” playlist. The track is an assertive stream of Vélez’s rhymes on resistance and gentrification. “Victory” also samples the voice of Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, one of the leading founders of revolutionary activist group The Young Lords, to pay homage to the group and educate listeners.

“Like the saying goes, ‘If you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you don’t know where you’re going,’” Vélez explained. “Understanding the lands you lay your head on and honoring the people who had that land stolen from them can go a long way.”

We heard from Vélez, AKA Pinqy Ring, on the message behind her new single, her philanthropic work and her authentic self.

During the “Can’t Stop Hip Hop” Conference at Harvard, you mentioned that hip-hop quite literally saved your life. Can you elaborate on that?

In 2004, I was in a car accident that left me in a coma. You know, people can’t always pinpoint the exact moment when their life changed, but I can. Before that, I was living my life in a trauma-influenced way — making poor decisions, hanging with crowds that weren’t necessarily edifying me, not caring for myself or what happened to me next. The car I was in literally burst into flames, but, like a phoenix, I rose from the ashes and became a new, more aware human being. 

Hip-hop gave me a second chance. It gave me the platform and language to speak on my story, and the story of many marginalized communities. It affirmed me and allowed me to believe in my most authentic self — a radical and ratchet and revolutionary rapper that I am proud.

Photo courtesy Pinqy Ring.

When and how did you get into hip-hop? 

My introduction to hip-hop was as a lost and lonely teen who needed desperately to feel seen. I was a student at Lane Tech High School, and all of my male friends were finding themselves through hip-hop as MCs, breakers, aerosol artists and DJs. I was always an avid writer, so when I heard stories from wordsmiths across the hip-hop diaspora, I was immediately enamored. It was that same group of male hip-hop heads who saw something in me that I didn’t see, and pushed my pen and encouraged me to give it a try. I started writing stories in the third person about other people’s experiences, when really they were my own. When I finally got the bravery to tell my story, everything changed.

“When you have understanding, cultural context and empathy, you start to learn how to pour into these places and people — with money, resources, support — instead of extracting. “

– Pinqy Ring

In what area(s) do you think you’ve grown the most as a musician? 

I think I’ve tried my best to manage expectations and practice non-attachment. When you first get into the music industry, you want fame and fortune. I understand now that the most important thing you can have is authenticity, voice and platform. And I’ve had all three!

I understand, however, that with a bigger platform you can reach more people and show them a reflection of themselves. You can show them what it looks like to persevere against all odds and be loved — or hated — for who you are. So, I am working diligently on doing what I need to expand my reach globally and put on for my city — and island, and culture, and gender, and and…!

Photo courtesy Pinqy Ring.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Pinqy Project? How did you come to start that?

The Pinqy Project has taken many iterations and forms, but essentially it is the addition to my artistry that uses social emotional learning, storytelling and hip-hop pedagogy to teach and facilitate culturally-competent workshops and talks to underserved communities. 

It came from the ways in which I was affirmed through the educators and mentors in my life — including comedian and curator Mikey O, who helped come up with the name — and how my music has always been married to social justice activism and personal narrative(s). It is a way for me to connect to youth and young adults — and even the grown ones — in real time, to share my story and struggles in hopes that it will show people how to radically accept themselves and strive for a more self-aware life where they are the change agents.

We saw on your Instagram that you recently performed with the Chicago’s Children’s Choir — which was especially meaningful for you as you used to perform with them when you were younger. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience? What did you take away from that? 

My work with the Chicago Children’s Choir was probably one of my favorite collaborations to date, and it happened by accident, really. A person they had reached out to for the song feature didn’t respond, and a colleague of mine recommended me for the part. Fate, much? 

The song was originally meant to just be a cover of “Latinoamérica” by Calle 13, but when I heard the track I felt it was missing something — a connection to the Chicago Latinx community, in specific. So I took the initiative to rewrite the second verse and call on what it looks like to be a Latinx person from the City of Wind. Watching the young people sing the powerful words of the chorus, witnessing their choreography and being able to add my own rap lyrics as a woman in hip-hop  — something that didn’t exist when I was in the CCC — was life-changing. I hope it showed the youth of CCC the validity of rap and its power to tell stories and change the world. 

Can you tell us about your work overseas with the hip-hop diplomacy program? What does that work look like? 

I work for an incredible organization called Next Level — an initiative by the State Department, Meridian International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — to do the dream work of Hip-Hop Diplomacy. I still need people to pinch me when I talk about it! They select one person to represent each element of hip-hop — MCing, DJing, breaking, aerosol art, beatboxing, production — and send them as a supergroup overseas to teach about hip-hop culture, entrepreneurship and conflict transformation. 

Five years ago I had the great fortune of traveling to Cambodia to do this work, and became a site manager for programming in 2020. I’ve since managed programs in Nepal, virtually, and just got back from managing programming in Argentina. It is a beautiful way to connect with the hip-hop diaspora globally, and is a living testament to the transformative nature of hip-hop culture. 

Photo courtesy Pinqy Ring

“Victory,” featured on Vocalo’s In Rotation playlist last month, tells the story of gentrification, urban renewal, resistance, etc. How do you feel people from all backgrounds can play their part in combating gentrification? 

I think knowledge is always, always key. I should say — knowledge, and then imparting that knowledge. Like the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you don’t know where you’re going.” Understanding the lands you lay your head on and honoring the people who had that land stolen from them can go a long way. Starting from our indegenous hermanxs, down to the marginalized communities that have been pushed out of their homes and communities. When you have understanding, cultural context and empathy, you start to learn how to pour into these places and people — with money, resources, support — instead of extracting. 

Can you tell us a little about your sample choice played throughout “Victory”?

The sample played throughout “Victory” is actually the voice of Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, one of the leading founders of The Young Lords. He talks about the Puerto Rican children and community of that time having “had it” — had enough of racism, enough of the violence, enough of lack of opportunities. It was a call to action then that still resonates today; “What will you do with the voice and power that you have? How do you claim and reclaim victory?” It was the best, most important way to pay homage to this revolutionary activist group — with their own words being put on wax and record for eternity.

Photo courtesy Pinqy Ring.

You also performed at Taste of Chicago this summer! Tell us about that performance — how did it go? 

The Taste of Chicago was… interesting. I will say it was incredibly powerful to have been able to bring as many people onto my platform as possible, a reflection of my last Taste of Chicago show on a smaller stage in 2017. I was able to bring singer JoLin Rosario, DJ Oliver Fade, drummer Servaun, Blu Rhythm Crew dancers, as well as the New Era Young Lords. I was also able to bring my dad with me, and pay some of my former students and mentees to work my merch table. My success is not my success without all of these amazing people, and I will always try to highlight them any chance I get!

Who are the New Era Young Lords?

The New Era Young Lords are the next generation of Young Lords, taking to arms the mission and vision of the incredible revolutionary activist group of the ‘60s and ‘70s. They are actively involved in the wellbeing and liberation of our people, and are partnered with other activist groups such as the Black Panther Party Cubs — the next generation of The Black Panthers. 

They are people I consider to be my comrades, and have actively supported the release and roll out of the single “Victory,” including joining me on stage for the Taste of Chicago this year. I was given the ultimate honor of performing “Victory” at their passing of the torch ceremony in Humboldt Park, where I got to rap the song for Cha Cha himself! I look forward to the many ways we will collaborate and change the world!

Photo courtesy Pinqy Ring.

It’s obvious you’re an activist on many fronts, and all of the causes you advocate for seem to intersect in your music. With that being said, what do you hope that listeners will take away from your music?

I hope listeners can take away from my music that it is ok — and, in fact, celebrated — to be your authentic self. That telling your story is paramount to all of our liberation. That they are worth love and resources and time and opportunities. That they don’t have to be perfect to be impactful. And, in honor of my mentor Cecilia Colon who passed just a few days ago — that they have to do their f*ckin’ work! That work includes the inner work of understanding ourselves, the emotional work of being well — meditating, praying, taking care of our health, going to therapy — and the physical work of doing what you love to do and what will impact the world!

What’s next for Pinqy Ring? 

I will be releasing a freestyle in honor of Latinx Heritage Month to a legendary hip-hop beat and Puerto Rican rap collaboration — so, stay tuned for that! I will be releasing my album, Phoenix, in the near future as well. I am playing Chicago LIVE at Navy Pier on September 25 at 5 p.m., Lake Stage, so come turn up with me! I am also actively auditioning boyfriends for my harem of men, so if you got an uncle or brother or cousin or friend — please send them my way! …But please make sure they have money — we can’t both be broke!

Follow Pinqy Ring on Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Introduction and interview by Makenzie Creden

Edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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