The Greatest: Ruby Ibarra Has Arrived

Photo by Donna Belle Ibarra

Photo by Donna Belle Ibarra

"I’m finally here, get your hands in the air / Now the greatest is here, I’ma make this my year" proclaims rapper Ruby Ibarra on her debut album, CIRCA91, and with this record, she's out to prove it. Fans have been eagerly anticipating this project (hi, me), which dropped yesterday on Beatrock Music, in the five years since her explosive 2012 mixtape Lost in Translation premiered on Eminem's Shade 45 Radio. Since last March, Ruby's been in the studio with executive producer Fatgums crafting an incredible body of work that tells her and her family's story as first generation Filipino-American immigrants. The hard work shows. She stays building upon previous subjects like political corruption and revolution, but on CIRCA91 we hear her going more introspective, vacillating between self-hate and swagger as she explores colorism, colonial mentality, assimilating into American culture, and something that isn't talked about much in our community but that hit me especially close to home - about being raised by a single mother.

Known for her intricate lyricism and hard hitting flow, Ruby Ibarra is a rapper, producer, and spoken word artist based in San Lorenzo, California. As a young child growing up in Tacloban, she was inspired by a TV performance by rapper Francis Magalona, and after immigrating to the Bay Area, she performed with SickSpits and other spoken-word collectives as a college student at UC Davis. She raps in English, Tagalog, and her family's Waray dialect, and self-describes her sound as a “90s hip hop vibe with elements of raw poetry,” using her music to educate and bring more visibility to Asian-Americans in the media. In 2010, Ruby began releasing videos on Youtube, which created a buzz after several were featured on XXL Magazine and Worldstar Hip Hop. Her videos "Game Up" and "Dosey Doe" each amassed over 100,000 views, eventually garnering the attention of DJ Kay Slay, who gave her the nickname "Hip Hop" and went on to host her 2012 mixtape. She signed to independent label Beatrock Music in 2015, home to fellow Pinxy labelmates Bambu, Rocky Rivera, and Prometheus Brown, among many others.

Intended to be listened to as a story from beginning to end, CIRCA91 opens with "Brown Out" on which a woman (presumably, Ruby's mother) tells her and her sister to stop playing and come inside so they don't get too dark. Ruby takes us on a journey through navigating life in America and the personal and family struggles she encounters along the way, peppered with interludes that demonstrate some all-too-familiar microaggressions ("but where are you from originally?") mostly by a Becky-esque teacher character which calls to mind the school setting of the skits in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, who she also pays homage to in the sample she raps over on the first track. On "The Other Side/Welcome" she speaks about her difficulties assimilating into a white society that doesn't like or accept her; "Taking Names" features Nump Trump and Bambu coming not just for oppressors but also for Fil-Ams who romanticize Indigenous cultures while ignoring their real-life struggles for land and autonomy. On "Someday" she talks about striving for success, namechecking some heroes along the way: "I flow like Rizal and I’m writing like Hagedorn / Mixed with Gabriela Silang, now watch as the page mourns"; on "Playbill$" we see Ruby "umuulan," flipping the stereotypical "make it rain" rap lyric on its ear. Honestly, every song is a banger but "US" featuring Rocky Rivera, Klassy, and Faith Santilla is an instant classic, a Pinay grrlpower resistance anthem. "Hopefully with a song like this, it could change the conversation and make people realize that women are more powerful together," Ruby says in Christine Kelly's Making the Album documentary, which also dropped yesterday. "Especially in a male-dominated field, why would we be against each other instead of working together to have our voices and our stories heard."

Ruby definitely doesn't play into stereotypes about how women rappers specifically, and Asians-Americans in general, are expected to present themselves in terms of looks, subject matter, or flow. "I want a lot of the songs on this album to be unapologetic, in-your-face," she says in the documentary. "Even until now, Asian-Americans are portrayed in the light where we're still very much submissive and this is to shed another light, another aspect, another image of us." Her rhymes speak about her experiences as a woman but also as a human and an immigrant. "Being a woman in hip hop has its positive and negative aspects to it. On the one side, it automatically separates me from everybody else - on the other hand, people still really don't expect women to really delve into lyricism. When they look at female emcees, they expect them to only have a limited amount of topics to talk about, and so when they hear me talking about other issues, I think some people are kinda drawn away from that." Ruby isn't just good "for a female rapper" or "for an Asian rapper" - she's a really fucking good rapper. Period.

Often times, especially in hip hop, women are pitted against each other. There is this almost inherent mentality that there needs to be “one queen bee.” I definitely have always wanted to challenge this notion. Women’s greatest challengers are not ourselves, but the systems that keep us underrepresented. Women have all different voices and stories and all those deserve to be heard on the mic.

Hella Pinay: Can you share some words on why you named the album CIRCA91 and what your intention is with this work?

Ruby: It’s titled CIRCA91 because that was around the time my parents moved to the U.S. from the Philippines (November 1991), this move then changed the trajectory of mine and my family’s lives. This particular year also sets the story of the album since it starts out with being new immigrants to the country. The initial purpose of this album was to create a project that would allow listeners to have a glimpse of who I am and where I come from. I feel that in the past, I solely focused on bars/flow/metaphors/punchlines and really tried to prove myself as a lyricist. I felt that I established a solid groundwork of that with my previous mixtape and cyphers. So this time I wanted to focus on storytelling. I wanted to create a body of work that would read like a story from beginning to end. I’ve been a hip hop fan since I was a little kid and my favorite artists and albums have always been those that you can identify with or those that strike you emotionally (reason why I love Pac and Lauryn Hill’s music so much).

Tell me a little bit about your journey as a rapper and why this particular art form speaks to you.

I was introduced to rap at a very young age. In the early 90s, during my first few years as a toddler in the Philippines, my family would always have the television on. One distinct memory I have is that during one of those noontime variety shows, a performer named Francis Magalona got on stage and rapped a song called "Mga Kababayan Ko." I was completely captivated by the rhythm and percussive sound of the words. Later on, one of the only music my mom brought with us when we moved to the U.S. was his cassette tape. I ended up listening to that and knowing every single word in verbatim. When I started school, I got introduced to artists like Pac and Snoop Dogg, from my classmates. The Friday soundtrack was the very first album I owned as a little kid! I think the art form spoke to me early on because of the sound - as a little kid, I was amazed at how these artists were essentially using their voice as an instrument.

What’s your family’s migration story from the Philippines? Where in the Philippines does your heritage draw from? 

My mom comes from Tacloban [City, Leyte], Philippines and my dad comes from Davao, [Mindanao], Philippines. My dad came to America first because his parents, who already had U.S. citizenship, petitioned him, and this was before he met my mother. For the first 4 years of my life, my parents lived in different countries because it took quite some time for my dad to be able to bring us to America. About a year after my sister was born, all four of us finally moved to the U.S. (California) together.

How does your Pilipina heritage inform your work and identity as an artist? What are some of the issues you explore through your work?

Photo courtesy of Beatrock Music

Photo courtesy of Beatrock Music

When I first started writing raps in high school, I never really thought about utilizing the art form to speak about my ethnic/cultural identity. It wasn't until college, after taking Asian American Studies courses, that I began exploring those topics and bringing those experiences to light. Some issues I explore through my work have been the history of colonization in the Philippines (and the social/personal effects of that), trying to bridge the two conflicting identities of being both American and Filipino, and language barriers.

Who are some other performers (past and present) that you look up to, and why?

The rappers who have influenced me the most growing up are Pac, Wu Tang, Lauryn Hill, and Eminem - each for a different reason. Currently, I listen to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and J Cole. I feel Kendrick and J Cole are one of the few mainstream artists that are pushing lyricism to the forefront while having substance in their lyrics.

What have been your biggest challenges as a rapper and particularly as a woman of color from a community that is hugely underrepresented in the media?

Some of my challenges as a woman of color in hip hop so far have been getting access to shows or platforms that male counterparts otherwise would have (i.e. hip hop music festivals are still predominantly male in the line-up).

Are there any songs off your new album that are particularly special to you?

Throughout the recording process, I constantly had a rotating list of favorite songs. I definitely am proud of the entire project, but there will of course be some tracks that hold greater significance for me, and those include: 

1) US - This track features an all-Filipina line-up and I will always be so proud of the fact we all threw it down on the track together. Often times, especially in hip hop, women are pitted against each other. There is this almost inherent mentality that there needs to be "one queen bee." I definitely have always wanted to challenge this notion. Women's greatest challengers are not ourselves, but the systems that keep us underrepresented. Women have all different voices and stories and all those deserve to be heard on the mic. The song is titled US because aesthetically on the playlist, it looks like it follows the album's central theme of immigration, and also because it is a twist on the abbreviation "VS." 

2) Broken Mirrors - This song was emotionally the most difficult for me to write. The first verse is very honest to my experience of growing up without a father figure and the second verse allowed me to talk abut the horrific rape culture and domestic abuse that is common (and sadly often normalized) in our society - I think I wrote this verse around the time that Stanford rape case happened.

3) Playbill$ - The first verse was so much fun to write with the ongoing rhyme scheme. Experimenting with flows and rhyme structures are me in my element! I love just going in on a beat. The rest of the album is so emotionally heavy and focused on storytelling that this song allowed me to focus on the creativity of rhyme and sounds. Plus, I rap in my native Filipino dialect, Waray, for almost an entire verse! I'm proud of that, haha. That was probably the most challenging to me lyrically on the whole album.

Photo courtesy of rubyibarra.com

Photo courtesy of rubyibarra.com

How has it been being part of Beatrock Music and working with other artists on the label?

It's been so dope! I was already such a fan of the artists on Beatrock Music years ago, so to be working alongside them now is still something I can't wrap my head around. I feel truly be blessed to be part of the Beatrock family.

You're out here talking about subjects in your work that a lot of other artist won't. Do you ever feel that responsibility to be a role model to other young people/young women or do you think about them when you write?

I don't think I've fully absorbed the idea that I could possibly be a role model to someone yet. I, however, will not be oblivious of that happening and so I am often careful about the ideas and platforms I choose to support and speak about. I understand that by putting my work out publicly that my words hold weight and can impact someone's life. I always think about young women when I write because I know that I am a visual representation of that. I do not and could never represent the definitive young woman's experience, but I hope that at least some of my lyrics and poems can make some of them feel represented.

As a rapper, can you share some thoughts around Asians and Asian Americans in hip hop being called out for appropriating black culture?

I completely understand the sentiment people may have about Asian-Americans/Asians/Filipino-Americans/Filipinos appropriating black culture. Unfortunately, many times it rings true. I’ve watched many Tagalog rap battles online and noticed some emcees spew the “n word” so effortlessly. It makes me cringe. I believe we also see it in a lot of K-Pop/K-rap with the artists changing their hair to be like that of a black artist’s. I think these instances are problematic - black culture used like a costume. Thankfully, we have artists like you too mentioned, Rocky Rivera, Bambu, Prometheus Brown, Dumbfoundead, among others, who are respectful of the culture and even use their platform to promote important issues (i.e. criminalizing and police brutality on black bodies).

With that being said, for me personally, I fully respect and acknowledge that this genre was created by the black community. I am always mindful of that because I know that I am using that space. Without black artists, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do and for that, I am grateful.

Tell me about this balikbayan merch box!

The balikbayan box merch is very exciting for me! For those who don't know, a balikbayan box is a box of supplies/goods/food that many overseas Filipinos send to their families and friends back in the Philippines. It has become basically a tradition/fabric of our culture to help relatives and friends in the Philippines by sending money or goods in a box. Thus, the box commemorates that and ties in nicely with the album's theme of being an overseas Filipino. We wanted the merchandise to feel like more of an experience to accompany the music. Aside from the album/logo pieces, every piece of merch in the box is a direct reference to one of the songs in the album. I won't list all the items now because I don't want to give away too much about the album, but I will say that there will be a signed physical CD, CIRCA91 shirt, a beanie, stickers, pin, and so much more. These boxes are very limited in quantity and exclusive only to my album release party and Brick & Mortar in San Francisco this October 6!

Any advice to other aspiring Pinay artists trying to break into the rap game?

My only advice is to please keep writing, please keep sharing your story and art. Hip hop needs you. The community needs you. The stage is more than big enough for everyone!!!

 

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Follow Ruby on Instagram @rubyibarra, Twitter @rubyibarra, and Facebook @rubyibarramusic and support her music by purchasing CIRCA91 via digital download on Amazon, iTunes, and Bandcamp, or cop a physical CD at www.rubyibarra.com

If you're in the Bay, don't miss her album release show at Brick & Mortar in SF on Thursday, 10/5/17! Featuring a stellar guest lineup with Rocky Rivera + DJ Roza, Klassy, Otayo Dubb x Equipto, 6Fingers + Bwan, and The Bar (Prometheus Brown, Bambu, & DJ Nphared) Get your tickets at beatrockmusic.com