By the time Ruby Ibarra stepped onto the stage on the first night of the Malasimbo Festival, most of the crowd had disappeared, leaving only a sparse audience of people who still had some energy left in them, at 1 am, to watch one last set.
After a quick introduction, the rapper proceeded to perform her music – a mini-set accompanied by The Balikbayans, a ragtag band of musicians whose smooth, jazzy beats contrasted well with Ruby’s hard-edged rap.
As she spouted verse after fire verse, Ruby’s entire petite frame shook with the force of her inflections, as if some immense energy or magic was coursing through her veins, uncontainable.
Ruby had come a long way to get there: from Visayas, by way of California, treading the precarious line between two worlds to arrive at that stage in the middle of the forest, performing for a scraggly crowd, many of whom were hearing her name, or her music for the first time.
Her verses bear the marks of that uphill journey: English fading into Waray fading into Tagalog.
Coming from her mouth, the 3 languages all sound like one tongue – and for Ruby, perhaps, that’s exactly what they are: the singular language of her multi-layered identity.
I spoke to Ruby before her set on March 1, that first night of Malasimbo. In conversation her voice was less sharp, but just as powerful. There was nothing soft-spoken about the way she spoke – she is, after all, a rapper. But hers wasn’t the overconfident swag normally associated with other artists of the genre. Rather, she bore a sage-like calm as she told me her story.
Born in Tacloban, she moved with her family to the United States when she was 4 years old, and grew up a first-generation immigrant in San Francisco’s Bay Area. In the transition from Fil- to Fil-Am, Ruby and her family brought one piece of music from the motherland: a cassette tape of Francis Magalona’s 1990 album, Yo!.
“It was something we played regularly in the household, and I think that, coupled with the fact that his music was just really good made me instantly a fan of not only him but also a fan of hip-hop,” she shared.
“Now when I think back on it I’m just very thankful that that was the first album that I grew to love,” she said. “When his stuff was released in the ‘80s, he was already talking about colorism in ‘Mga Kababayan Ko.’ He was talking about uniting our communities and uplifting our people.”
Taking her cue from the master rapper, Ruby explores themes of Filipino pride and colorism in her debut album, Circa91, released in 2017. On it, Ruby raps about identity crisis, about brown skin, about the struggle to survive, about mother and motherland.
In “Brown Out,” for instance, she goes “They teach me to erase that brown, subconsciously I lose my crown/ ‘Til I don’t even recognize the person that’s inside me now” as she talks about how the experience of immigrating demands one to adopt a less-Filipino identity to assimilate.
In “Playbill$” she highlights how her single mother’s college degree was rejected in the US, making it difficult for her to find a job and support their family: “My mama’s education don’t mean shit still/ From accounting to McDonald’s just to pay this bill/ And we tryna sell our soul just make this deal.”
In “Background,” she closes with a heartrending spoken word piece about having to scrub harder, to the point of pain, to erase the darkness of her skin – an image that illustrates just how detrimental colonial mentality is to Filipinos:
“They say papaya soap only works when it burns. And It burns deep. So scrub harder/ When we played outside on hot days, our mothers would say we smell just like the sun/ You don’t wanna be in the sun…they all say/ We are taught to fear darkness but ironically find solace in the shade.”
The clarity with which Ruby approaches these themes belies the struggle that she had to go through to come to terms with her identity, and how these experiences affected her growing up.
“I remember growing up from a kid to a teenager and thinking, am I Filipino enough? Am I American enough? And I could never really feel that I was enough of either side,” she shared.
“When my family would vacation here, I wasn’t fluent in Tagalog and I would think I wasn’t Filipino enough, or I would go there, and know how to speak English but then people would mention that ‘oh you have an accent, oh you have a flat nose, you look different,’” she said.
It was through writing music that Ruby was able to finally come to terms with having – and celebrating – her two identities.
“When I did that I was able to reflect and dismantle a lot of the internalized hate or self doubt,” she said. “In addition to that it was taking Asian American studies or Filipino American history courses in college and getting to know my roots more.”
“For a lot of Filipino Americans in the US, they don’t really know their Filipino side that much, because of that colonial mentality, and the fact that things like Filipino history aren’t being spoon-fed to us. We have to go out and search for these things ourselves,” she said.
“I say things in an unapologetic way, because I just, I don’t give a fuck. At this time, more than ever, it’s important that we don’t hold back.”
A closer listen to her lyrics shows that Ruby did her homework when it came to learning about Filipino culture and history. Her songs are filled with references to, for instance, Jose Rizal, Gabriela Silang, Magellan, Red Horse, San Miguel, Eskinol, etc.
She takes it further by not only referencing Filipino culture, but using it. She makes it a point to rap not just in English, but in Tagalog, Bisaya, and Waray, which was the language they spoke at home even as she was growing up in the US.
“Brown Out,” for instance, opens with a skit where a Filipino woman calls to a young Ruby and her playmates, asking her to come in from the sun, codeswitching from English to Waray. “Playbill$” features a full Waray verse. “US” moves effortlessly from English to Tagalog.
“I think our language is so beautiful, that’s why I want to put it in my music, to show people that Tagalog, Waray, Bisaya, sounds beautiful in hip-hop and it should be celebrated in music,” she said. “Our languages are basically like acapella beatbox to me. The sounds are very percussive and I think it’s just very perfect for hip-hop.”
It isn’t just the Filipino experience that rings loud in Circa91 – it’s also the women’s voices. Throughout the album, scarcely does one hear a male speaking or rapping. From the women portrayed in the small skits, to Ruby’s fellow Fil-Am rappers Rocky Rivera, Klassy, Faith Santilla, the female voice is amplified – and that’s exactly how Ruby intended it.
As a scientist working in biotech for her day job, Ruby knows a thing or two about being a woman in a field ruled by men – but between the two fields, hip-hop, with its inherent misogyny, may be the rougher landscape to navigate as an uncompromising female.
“It was actually a conscious decision of mine to have predominantly female voices on the album,” Ruby said. “Hip-hop is very much a male-dominated field, and at the same time, I think Filipino culture and Filipino identity is also very much patriarchal. Oftentimes, the women’s stories and the women’s voices get pushed back and are never at the forefront.”
She made an example of “US,” where she extols the strength of Filipina mothers, grandmothers, and sisters when she raps lines that go “Yo fuck a story arc if it don’t involve no matriarchs/ Our mothers work from the ground up, they craftin’ air like ATR/ With the butterfly sleeves naka-Filipiniana/ Pag nagsalita mga banat ay bala.”
The song’s video is appropriately empowering as it features over 150 Filipinas in their diversity, wearing traditional Filipino clothing from all over the Philippine islands. The video is a source of pride for Ruby, who also directed it.
“I think I wanted to ultimately show people that we’re not one-dimensional. We have so many different voices, so many different stories and one person can’t represent all. That’s why I wanted to have multiple women on the song, and also different points of view of women on the album, to share that we’re very much different and all these voices are needed, and it helps complete the story,” she said.
Naturally, the women’s voices on Circa91 tell women’s stories – in particular, the Filipina’s story. It’s a story most glaringly told in “US,” but it can also be heard in “7000 Miles,” when Ruby sings about her mother’s struggle to work as a single parent, with the refrain “My mom will make it in America/ I swear, yeah.”
On “Broken Mirrors,” the Filipina story gets all the more real when Ruby sings about the way the world chips away at women. Specifically, she takes on sexual violence: “He rapes it’s her fault, she should’ve been dressin’ right/ Like when they catcall, she shouldn’t be out at night/ But fuck ‘em, it’s all of them that’s been taking away her light.”
At this point, it’s important to note that it was only this year that a solo female artist, Cardi B, won a Grammy for Best Rap Album. It is also important to note that hip-hop has long allowed hate speech against women to fester, and abusive artists to thrive.
This is the scene Ruby’s hip-hop is pushing back against, and it is amidst all these violent, oppressive voices that Ruby’s distinctly Filipina voice is fighting to be heard. So how does she get people to listen?
She doesn’t know either – and she said that if she did, then her work would be done. She only guessed that it may have something to do with her simply not giving a fuck.
“I say things in an unapologetic way, because I just, I don’t give a fuck. At this time, more than ever, it’s important that we don’t hold back. If I wanna go out there and say that I’m going to smash patriarchy, then that’s what I’m gonna do and that’s what I’m gonna say,” she said.
Of course, to smash the patriarchy in an oppressively patriarchal world takes more than just confidence, it takes courage – something that Ruby exudes right off the bat, and something she believes is embedded in our DNA as Filipinos.
What drives her to keep speaking up is representation.
“I’m doing this because of my family. I’m doing this because of myself. Because of my mom, because of the fact that my mom, who went to school here in the Philippines, who went to America in her early 30s, wasn’t able to find a job right away. Her college degree was dismissed,” she said. “Because of stories like that, because people still are underrepresented and misrepresented.”
“I wanna be an artist that people feel like, oh, someone looks like me, and is doing something that I wanna do, or I feel like I have a voice because of this song,” she said, recalling how Lauryn Hill’s 1998 album, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and made her fall even more in love with hip-hop.
“It was because of that album that I felt like, wow, this woman is speaking my feelings and right now. I can relate 100 percent to that experience, of what it’s like to love, what it’s like to be in pain, what it’s like to be heard. If I can give even 5 percent of that feeling to someone else then that’s what I wanna accomplish,” she said.
On the second day of the Malasimbo Festival, Ruby played a full set, to a much bigger, much livelier crowd. Towards the end of her set, she launched into “US,” which seemed to be the song the audience had been waiting for.
Ruby’s voice punctuated the air as she rapped the song’s refrain: “Island woman rise, walang makakatigil. Brown, brown woman rise, alamin ang iyong ugat. They got nothin’ on us.”
Whatever force it was that ran through Ruby’s veins and made her entire being shake everytime she rapped seemed to catch on to the audience this time, and it now pulsed through them too.
They raised their fists to the air. They shouted the verse back to her. They jumped around, making the ground vibrate all the way to the fringes of the crowd.
“They got nothin’ on us, aye! Nothin on us, aye! Isang bagsak!”
The island woman has undeniably risen – and the world is shaking. – Rappler.com