Last March, two days before the shelter-in-place order went into effect in the San Francisco Bay Area, rapper Ruby Ibarra was already taking the necessary precautions to quarantine herself during the COVID-19 pandemic. With her day job in the biotech field, her work was about to get busier. Since then, she’s been hard at work on both COVID-19 test kits and a potential vaccine.
That hasn’t, however, slowed down her progress on creating her sophomore album. “I think this time around, it’s been a lot more time-consuming to build this next album compared to Circa 91,” she said in a video interview via Google Hangout. “I just wanted to be heavily involved this time, because I wanted to help curate the overall sound of the album. Aside from maturing as a lyricist, I also wanted to show people that I’ve also grown as an overall artist. I want to be more hands on with it this time.” Ibarra was aiming to release the album this October, before she decided to postpone it because of the pandemic, which would have made it difficult for her to fully market and tour it.
While listeners can expect a growth in her forthcoming album, that’s not to say that Circa 91 isn’t a quality one in and of itself. Released via Beatbox Music in 2017, fans in the Filipino American community and beyond have loved and felt moved by Ibarra’s songs highlighting her experiences of being a first-generation Filipina American. From the women empowering “Us” to the declaration of success in “Someday,” she has quickly risen to be recognized as a talent with a message.
When Ibarra first got into rap, she saw it as a means to express herself — someone who grew up thinking she didn’t have a voice. “Whether that was being in a classroom or when I became an adult and I got my first job, I never felt that there was a platform out there for me to really have my voice amplified,” she explained. “With rap, I found an avenue where I could tell my stories and speak my truth and not really feel like someone was out there to silence me or to shut me down.”
Overtime, Ibarra’s reason for creating her art has evolved from being able to express herself to being a voice for other girls and women with similar stories as her own. “They don’t also necessarily have to be Filipina American. I think just the overall immigrant experience [is] very identifiable across the nation. I know there are people out there who obviously look up to me and see themselves in my work. I don’t take that lightly at all. I find myself cognizant of that now as I’m writing the next album.”
Born in the Philippines and raised in the Bay Area, Ibarra grew up listening to 90’s hip hop music. Her favorites include Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac Shakur, and the late Filipino rapper, Francis M.
“Francis M was the first rapper I ever listened to,” she said. “He’s also one of my largest influences. He was my first introduction to hip hop. When I think about it now, listening to his songs as a five-year-old kid, his content was very much focused on social justice and embracing your culture and being proud of the skin that you’re in. Now I find myself talking about very similar things.”
Aside from writing about experiences relevant to immigrants and Filipino Americans, Ibarra stands out from her idols in her ability to rap in English, Tagalog, and Waray. While she saw it initially as a back pocket arsenal when she got her start participating in cyphers (freestyle rap battles), over time, she came to see it more as a valuable component to the messages she wanted to express.
“I would have done an album a disservice if I had this project talking about the Filipino American experience and not include elements of Filipino language,” she explained. “I think that would have done the album a disservice. Language is an important part of the culture.”
In addition to music, Ibarra has also expanded her artistry through filmmaking. Within the last two years, she directed her music videos for her songs “Us” and “Taking Names,” and co-directed the documentaries Nothing on Us: Pinays Rising and the upcoming 7,000 Miles. Inspired by the music videos from the likes of Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, it is something she has always wanted to do and something she hopped on when she got the opportunity to release her album, in order to maintain full control over the visuals.
Nothing on Us had its world premiere at CAAMFest36 in 2018. Before then, Ibarra was unfamiliar with the world of Asian American film festivals. She quickly came to see how crucial organizations like CAAM are in normalizing stories from the community and is grateful to have them as a platform for her work. In May, she was back at CAAMFest Online: Heritage at Home, this time being interviewed and performing live online.
“We know how white Hollywood still is and we know how difficult it is to put our stories on these mainstream stages. So, being able to celebrate with our community and see our faces on these large theater screens,” she stated, “it’s beyond anything I ever imagined and beyond anything I could have ever described, and I saw the power in that.”
7,000 Miles is a feature-length documentary co-directed by Evelyn Obamos that follows Ibarra (who co-directed it) and her band, The Balikbayans, as they travel from San Francisco to Manila, Philippines to perform several shows over the course of five days, while discovering their roots. “The trip was particularly special for me because it was my first time performing my first album in its entirety and also my first time playing with the band internationally,” she commented. “It was quite a ride because we faced several obstacles to make the [trip] happen as well as other dilemmas throughout the duration of our trip.”
Aside from getting out of quarantine, Ibarra is looking forward to pursuing music full-time in the future. While she was originally planning to leave her day job earlier this year, she chose to stay, especially as work continues to ramp up in response to COVID-19.
“I still stuck around, and with this virus, it’s really impacted a lot of full-time musicians, freelancers, and independent workers out there,” she commented. “It’s very unfortunate. But then again like I mentioned at the start of our conversation, I think it’s a blessing in disguise in that it’s an opportunity for us as creatives to finally block off the time to just create.”
In the long run, Ibarra hopes to both win a Grammy one day and give back to the community by being a mentor to upcoming creatives. She also hopes that bridges can be built within the Asian American community where there are still gatekeepers present.
“What I mean by that is that just this last year, I’ve come to learn that there Asian Americans who work at Spotify, who work at Google, Facebook – these bigger conglomerates that can help us and normalize the Asian American voice and face.” she said. “If we just open the doors for one another, that will easily help shift Asian American representation.”
Watch 7000 Miles at a special Filipino American History Month CAAMFest FORWARD Drive-In event on October 14, 2020. For details and to purchase tickets, visit CAAMFest.com.