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Ruby Ibarra Is Hip-Hop’s Newest Game Changer

Originally published on STATUS Magazine, July 2018.

You’ve heard her mind-numbing bars in CIRCA91 and seen her collaboration with SZA, but Filipina-American spoken word artist and rapper RUBY IBARRA is just getting warmed up.

Ruby Ibarra isn’t playing when she spits, “Two tongues that’s sharper with a mic.” Born in the provincial city of Tacloban, Philippines and raised in San Francisco, California, she’s mastered the lyrical art of writing rhymes in English, Tagalog, and her native dialect of Waray. Narrating her family’s story of immigrating to America in her debut studio album CIRCA91, she exhibits her effortless efficiency alongside multi-syllabic flows by recounting the hardships they faced along the way. “My mom always stressed that I should remember Waray (our dialect) and Filipino culture was never removed from our practices at home. I think the fact that both American and Filipino cultures were part of our lives made the transition easier for us as a family,” she explains.

At four years old, she came across a performance of The Filipino King of Rap—the late Francis M.—on a local noontime variety show. “I recall being completely drawn to the music—how rhythmic the words that came out of his mouth were and how his voice was essentially his instrument.” She adds, “From that point, I think my fascination with Francis M.'s music exponentially grew when my family was living in California shortly after, and his album was the sole piece of music my mom packed in her luggage. Because of that, we'd listen to his record multiple times a day every day for the first few months upon immigrating, and eventually being able to recite the songs in verbatim.”

Relocating to the Bay positioned her to dig deeper into the culture of hip-hop. Coming from the city that bred iconic rappers such as E-40, Mac Dre, and Hieroglyphics, she notes being surrounded by rap during the majority of her childhood from the cars, to school, to events, and to the parties. Taking musical cues from the likes of Tupac, Eminem, and Wu-Tang Clan, she began writing as a teenager and focused on the dominant component of lyricism in ‘90s hip-hop. “I think the artists I grew up listening to made it inevitable for me to focus on lyricism. I think when artists first start out, we often emulate or find inspiration from our favorite artists until we find our own voice,” she explains. “Being an Eminem fan at a young age, his music also introduced me to a lot of the technical aspects of rap such as metaphors and rhyme schemes.”

21 years after her first encounter with hip-hop, Ruby Ibarra is taking matters into her own hands, promoting female solidarity, a touch of the right nationalism, and paying homage to the people who supported her from the get-go. “Personally, my mom had and still has the biggest influence on me, especially as a writer. I try to weave in as much of her stories into my music as I can—that's why I consciously decided to include her actual voice in the CIRCA91 skits.” Moving forward, she begs the question, “If we don't write our stories, who will?”

Moving from Tacloban to San Francisco at such a young age can be tough. How did you handle the major culture shock?

There was definitely a lot of learning and adjusting when my family first moved to the Bay. I was fairly lucky because I came here as a little kid and was able to adapt to the culture and language relatively quickly. I can only imagine what the transition was like for my parents who were well into their adulthood, from language barriers, to cultural differences, and financial stress.

As a female of color rising in a male-dominated industry, how do you keep your head above the classless noise of sexism and racism?

I really just try to drown out any negativity. I confess that it can be a bit challenging not to respond especially when everything is social media based and subject to comments and criticism. At the end of the day, my purpose for creating music is to make sure that at least one person out there feels like they have a voice or that they feel represented. Anything that doesn't contribute to my personal or artistic growth is just noise and ultimately, if they are talking about me, it means that I have their attention, and I'm not stopping until faces like mine become more visible in American media.

You call yourself the product of a single mother on the track “Broken Mirrors,” something many of us can relate to. Where do you find the courage to speak about something so personal?

I'm glad that you cited “Broken Mirrors” because that was actually the most difficult song for me to write in the album since it was the most personal. The first verse was ultimately my reflection of the effects of growing up without a father figure, and the rest of the song touched on abusive relationships and social constructs of body image.

I find myself to be a fairly private person; only a very select few of my friends know personal details about me, so opening up in these recent songs have actually helped me come to terms with a lot of the things I've struggled with in the past. I think I find courage to speak on them because I recognize that I'm not alone in these experiences. My mentality is that if I talk about things like divorce, self-hate/doubt, or sexism, then it might help someone out there who is going through the same thing.

On your track “US,” you break the stereotype of women going each other and instead create a badass all-female lineup. As a society, how else do you think we can promote the idea of women working together and not against?

I think we just need to continue creating AND supporting female collaborations. I also feel that a lot of hip hop event organizers need to include more female representation in their line-ups. Visibility and inclusion would be key to changing the tired narrative that women should compete with one another and that only one woman can dominate at a time. I think we're also at a good place in hip hop right now where we see artists such as Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, and Rapsody all killin' it at the same time.

Tell us about your Start Something Priceless collaboration with SZA. How did this all come about?

The MasterCard commercial and campaign with SZA was such an amazing project and one of the best opportunities I've been a part of! They told me that the project would include a national TV commercial and the possibility to be on a billboard for the campaign and advertising. Of course I couldn't say no to the opportunity and was even more ecstatic to join when I found out that the main message of the ad would be, essentially, to start something priceless by being your true self.

I actually was met with a dilemma prior to jumping on board because the turnaround time for the project would be within a very short time frame. They wanted me to be in New York to record the music and film the commercial the very same week I was supposed to be in the Philippines where I had already booked a couple shows. However, I was very fortunate as the stars aligned and even when travel, distance, and schedules could have prevented it from happening, everything worked out!

The cherry on top was being in New York during the second day and SZA surprising us in the recording studio; they hadn't disclosed to us that she would be part of the project! It was certainly an experience I'll never forget and a great opportunity that has opened a lot of doors for me this year.

What words of advice would you give to the young female emcees wanting to break into the rap game?

Never compromise your voice and never underestimate your power, especially in a male-dominated field that aims to promote only certain female narratives. We need your story. We need your voice!

And lastly, what would you say to everyone who doubts the prowess of Ruby Ibarra?

I'm finally here. ;)

Written by Sophie Caraan
Photographed by Donna Ibarra/Jaymar Elen