In her debut album "Circa91," Ruby Ibarra addresses colorism and prejudice within the Filipino-American community and arms Pinoys with the knowledge to fight injustice.
Photos by Donna Ibarra
Ruby Ibarra is a rapper you've probably heard, but haven’t heard of—at least not yet. The Filipina-American recently made the rounds in a nationwide Mastercard commercial that also featured musicians like SZA, Radkey, and Victoria Canal. Each artist performed their take of the 1962 Bo Diddley song "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover."
For Ibarra, the commercial was an opportunity that almost never was. She was en route to the Philippines when she got word of the project, which was moving quickly. "They tell me that they're on a very, very tight deadline, and I need to submit an audio demo by the end of the night," Ibarra tells Broadly. "And I think, 'What the hell, I'm about to board my flight!'"
But she downloaded the beat, found a semi-isolated space near her gate, and got to work. "I write something as quickly as I can, and I record it on my iPhone using the voice recorder," Ibarra described. "I email it to them, and I think, 'Oh my god, the quality sucks, I probably didn't get it.'"
But she did, and the final track featured in the commercial is exactly what Ibarra threw together before hopping on that transpacific flight to Manila. Between the major TV campaign, her debut album Circa91, and an epic music video for "Us"—her song being hailed as an anthem for Filipinas everywhere—Ibarra’s star is undoubtedly on the rise.
Broadly caught up with the musician, who opened up about being a first-generation immigrant, discovering hip-hop, and making a name for herself in the male-dominated rap game.
BROADLY: Tell me about your upbringing and your journey from the Philippines to the United States.
RUBY IBARRA: My story aligns pretty much perfectly with Circa91. [We] migrated from the Philippines to the United States in 1991. I was just a baby, and we settled in the Bay Area. It was mostly my parents who were really affected by the change in location. It was such a vast difference in, you know, not just food and language but culturally, too. I remember being a kid and seeing those adversities and changes really affect my father’s and my mother's lives. Eventually it led to their divorce and split. I think it took a toll on them mentally, and thankfully I had music to cope.
How did hip-hop come into the picture?
I was introduced to hip-hop at a very early age, around four years old at the time. One of the albums—or probably the only album, actually—that my mom packed in her suitcase was Yo! by Francis Magalona, who’s a pioneer of hip-hop in the Philippines. He was also known for being very socially and politically forward with the themes in his music. He addressed a lot of what I address in my poetry and music, like colorism—which is very prevalent in the Filipino-American community—and things like combating social and political injustice.
Reflecting back on that now, it just surprises me that I feel like everything has come 360 and made a full circle in my life. Hip-hop pretty much played as a backdrop in my immigration story and in my parents’ immigration story. When I came out with my very first project [the 2012 mixtape Lost In Translation], my main goal was to prove myself on the mic. I focused on the technicalities of the rhymes and making sure they had enough metaphors. It was really reflective of the type of music that I grew up listening to—very Wu-Tang Clan and underground hip-hop. Now with Circa91, I wanted to finally introduce the person behind the microphone.
You mentioned incorporating issues like colorism in your music. What are some other messages and central themes you hope to communicate?
A lot of what I talk about today in my poetry and my music is centered on the issues that come firsthand from my community. Like with colorism, growing up in my culture I would look at Filipino media, movies, and TV shows, and wonder, "Why don't these actors and actresses look like me?"
They were always mestizos and mestizas, meaning they’re not full-blooded Filipino. And those would be the people I would see who were supposed to represent the average Filipino on TV. I have a younger sister, and she's a darker shade than me. I would always wonder why people would often compare the two of us. I'd hear them say that my sister's a lot darker than me, and it gave this connotation that it was more frowned upon to be darker.
Even now, when I see the movies that my mother watches back home, it’s still pretty much 100% true today. There needs to be a discussion around it, and there needs to be more diverse representation in the Filipino community when it comes to the people we put on the platform. It’s visibility in the Filipino community, but also visibility as a Filipino-American. I feel like when I turn on the television or the radio, I don't see people that look like me. I don't hear stories that I can relate to or that speak directly to my experiences—still in 2018. I want to start that discussion about creating more visibility for people of color in American media as well.
As a Filipina-American, when I came across Circa91 and started listening to it, I found myself nodding throughout the whole thing. I just thought, “I totally get that.” Finally, somebody is speaking to these experiences that for so long felt isolating. Do you consider your music political?
Yes. And I think a lot of artists—when these words like "activist" or "political" are put onto them or their music—tend to shy away from it. To be honest, it was something that I was kind of hesitant to accept or to label my music as. But now, more than ever, I feel like we're at a pivotal point in this country, especially given this political and social climate that we're in. If anything, I do want it to be political. I do want it to start conversations, especially with the platform we have, which is generally the 18- to 25-year-old demographic that listens to hip-hop. Hip-hop has always been the voice of the marginalized, of the people who are voiceless. It's always been the music of the youth. So I think, especially with seeing things like the March for our Lives, that the youth are actually putting their foot down and are being at the forefront of these debates and these discussions.
We have to talk about the video for "Us," which just dropped a few weeks ago. How did you come up with that concept?
"Us" is my favorite track off the album, and releasing that video has been my proudest moment so far in my career. When I first heard the beat in the studio, I was around 75% done with the album. I knew I still wanted a collaborative track on the track list. I wanted a song with just all female voices, because being in a male-dominated field like hip-hop, women are pit against each other. You don't really hear collaborative tracks among women in hip-hop. Add the fact that the Philippines is a very patriarchal society, so I knew that I also wanted to have specifically Filipino voices on a single track, too, to challenge that narrative.
When I first heard the drop of the bass on that beat—the boom—I was like, "Oh my God, I need this instrumental right now. Please tell me that no one's taken this beat yet." Before I even finished writing my two verses for the song, I was already envisioning a music video in my head. I knew that I wanted a lot of stern faces in the video. I wanted it to be a video where a multitude of women were all giving you the resting bitch face, totally not giving a fuck, and owning our space and claiming our presence. After I finished my verses and there were lines in both English and Tagalog, that's when I realized I also wanted to feature the traditional aspects of the video to kind of balance the masculinity of the track. I wanted us to be in traditional dresses and more feminine clothing, as well as show that women are not one-dimensional human beings. We can be tomboys and we can be girly. When the album was released, I received a lot of messages about "Us" from Filipina listeners. They said, "I feel like this is an anthem," so I really wanted to make sure that the video was powerful in that aspect.
You read my mind. "Us" immediately struck me as an anthem for Filipina empowerment and sisterhood. Was that your intention going into the song?
I didn't know I could create an anthem. When we finished the song and the album was done, I knew that song was something special. But I didn't anticipate that it would get the response that it did, or that it would have that impact in the Filipino community. I think people have called it an anthem because for the first time, especially with the music video, we see representation of Filipinas in a different light. These women aren't submissive. They aren't mail-order brides. It's finally a song that speaks to them, and a lot of them feel like they're being represented for the first time.