Interview by Andrea Miralles
Ruby Ibarra humors my deep dive into her immigrant roots, ethnicity, family, bi-culturalism, career, and early musical inspiration in Part 1 of a three-part interview series.
Ruby, you are a Filipina American rapper, spoken word artist, and producer. You were born in Tacloban City, Philippines, immigrated with your family, and grew up in San Lorenzo. You document this immigrant experience in your music. What was it like growing up bicultural in the Bay Area? What resonant experiences from childhood aptly describe your roots? One of my early memories was when my family and I migrated from Tacloban City, Philippines and moved to the East Bay. We first settled in Hayward, and that’s where I went to elementary school. I just remember it being so culturally diverse. I had so many other classmates who were also first generation immigrants. I think that made the transition from the Philippines to the US a little easier for me as a kid, seeing that my classmates had come from similar backgrounds and cultures. In a sense, it made me feel like I was still at home.
I was very fortunate to have had my family move to a place like the Bay Area, where it was so rich—not only in culture, but in music too. I always attribute my early musical influences to the fact that I was raised in the Bay Area. I was introduced to artists like Pac and Hieroglyphics at an early age. I think all of that helped cultivate the type of music that I would end up making.
Did you have a disconnect with your family growing up—or do you still—due to the culture clash or familial expectations? Now that I reflect back on it, there were definitely moments of disconnect between myself and my parents. Essentially, they were both first generation immigrants, but they migrated here in their mid 30s. I'm sure that experience for them, the transition from the Philippines to the US, was a vastly different experience from what I went though as a kid. I think getting introduced to this new culture and language here was a lot easier for me than for them, as they already had a whole life and experience back home. They basically had to drop everything and start a new life.
So, I think some of the disconnect between me and my parents stems from our different immigration experiences. We were experiencing the same thing, but we were going through it differently. For instance, my mom, who had a college degree, once we moved here, the only job she could get in the 90s was as a cashier at McDonald's. Seeing that as a kid, I wondered, “How come my mom’s degree actually didn’t translate here in America?” I think those questions were starting to brew in my mind, but it wasn’t until I was in adulthood that I realized that a lot of immigrant families go through these things. Also, a lot of things get lost in translation—not only speaking of language, but also educational backgrounds and resources available to people. It doesn’t always translate equally in America.
The Spanish brought Catholicism to the Philippines, which is now one of the largest Christian nations in the world—what role has religion played in your life, if at all? Subconsciously, religion has played a large part of my life. I think about moments growing up being five years old when my lola, my grandma, used to live with us, seeing her pray throughout the day. We had an altar in the house that we dedicated so that my grandma could do her prayers. We’d go to church. We were that Filipino family that’d wake up and go to—not the first mass because we’re still Filipino and we’re not gunna be that early—we went to the 11 o’clock mass, and we didn’t miss church. We went there every Sunday. I grew up in a pretty religious household.
It wasn’t until the passing of my grandmother where my parents—or my mom specifically—took a more careful look at what the church was saying, what some of the teachings and the priest were saying, and kind of built more of an understanding for herself and not necessarily just followed things blindly. Other than that, religion was definitely a big part of my life. I think now, as an adult, having these conversations with my mom about religion, we’ve helped each other realize that it’s a large part of Filipino American—Filipino culture—in general. But, I think that my mom has been more progressive about it and not necessarily followed things just because the church said what was right or wrong.
Every time I go home to the Philippines, I see that faith is a really, really big part of the culture there. At the same time, especially with how my music is now, I’m hoping to be able to have these conversations not only with my mom, but also with my relatives back home to make sure that they’re understanding that even before religion, you need to just know what you’re believing and preaching.
I want to preface this with the fact that I am a 5’0” Filipina woman myself… in what ways has your stature, ethnicity, and skin color caused people to treat you in a particular way? How have you dealt with that and learned to own it? In my eyes you own it. Ayee shorties represent! Vertically challenged! My music is definitely on the more aggressive, unapologetic lyricism side of hip hop. When people hear me for the first time, they’re 99.9% of the time very surprised. I always get comments from people saying, “Oh that came out of that small body?” or “I didn’t expect to hear that from you, from your size.” It’s kind of my secret weapon—when people don’t know what they’ll expect from you. I think that’s the element of surprise that I bring to my performances.
I wouldn’t say that it’s hindered me from opportunities or anything like that. If anything, I just laugh at people’s reactions when they hear me on the mic—it’s probably completely opposite of what they would have expected to hear from someone that looks like me because I know that I don’t have the image of what people perceive when they think of a rap artist—I’m short, I’m Pinay, I’m a girl. I think, if anything, it’s helped me to get people’s attention right off the bat.
Family in my experience of traditional Filipino culture, is always #1. What did your parents’ and family’s support look like when you started spoken word and transitioning into music—what does it look like now? Typically, parents from not only Asian American families, but also Filipino American and immigrant families, want their kids to go through school, get a college degree, and get a good job. I think that’s completely understandable knowing that oftentimes our parents not only sacrificed to risk everything, but also dropped everything in their homeland just to come to America to fulfill the American dream. The story always goes that our immigrant parents want a better life for us, for their kids. I think it’s only understandable and only natural that a lot of immigrant parents would want their kids to take the “traditional route” to success, and that usually involves having a good 9-5 job and attending university.
I did do that route, but to be honest with you, my mom was always, completely 100% behind me when it came to nurturing and supporting me and the arts. I remember in college, she would often tell me, “Are you sure you want to pursue this degree, why don't you just do music full time?” Early on, she would already insert these positive messages trying to express her support. Even until now, I don’t think that support has changed. She tells me all the time, “Why are you still working a 9-5; why don’t you just do music full time?” I kinda laugh at it thinking maybe it’s reverse psychology, like “Okay you want me to do music full time, then I don’t know, is this a test? Maybe I should keep my 9-5.”
I actually ended up going to UC Davis for Biochemistry. Now, I work as a scientist in a lab—that’s my day job. I completely shut that off and I do music on the weekends. I go out, do shows, and get in the studio.
I am lucky that my mom always had my back and made sure that I was happy and using myself to my full potential. She saw early on that it’s really music and poetry that ultimately make me happy. I think having her support early on helped me keep a level-headed focus and helped a lot of my successes.
You were inspired by the Filipino rapper FrancisM’s politically conscious lyrics. You had memorized the songs on his cassette at a young age because your family played this little piece of home every day. What inspired you about those themes and what else do you attribute your equality-minded world view that we glean from your woke lyrics that touch on social justice issues and trauma? I was introduced to Francis Magalona’s music at an early age. As a kid, I was ultimately drawn to the rhythm, his lyrics, and the beat. Now that I think about it, it’s perfect that he was the first artist that I ever listened to. I feel like now, I’m coming to find my lane in music and my place in hip hop. I know what kind of direction I want to take my lyrics and songs and what I want to talk about. It’s amazing to me that it’s very much aligned to themes that Francis Magalona had in his music. He talked a lot about political and social themes, and that’s kind of what I’m doing now, specifically with my last album, talking about colorism—very, very similar themes.
Being introduced to that at an early age was embedding it into my mind, and I’m happy that I was introduced to music that actually had substance to it. When we think about Filipino hip hop, when OPM—or original Pilipino music—is brought up, we think about dance music or party music, and I think FrancisM helped push the culture forward and actually had important stories and themes in his lyrics.
In addition to him, being introduced to artists like Pac or Lauryn Hill as a kid helped me become an artist that wants to use my platform for something bigger. At the end of the day, if I'm gunna be given a microphone or stage, I better be saying something of substance. As much as I love party music—it’s good to have that kind of music in our lives too—I think it’s important that we’re also teaching our audience or helping our audience think for themselves as well. Growing up for me, the biggest teachers were artists like Pac and Lauryn, so I know for sure that if an eight-year-old were to hear my music, he or she is gunna very much remember the lyrics that they’re listening to. So it’s important for me to always think about that in the back of my head—to know that there's gunna be someone out there that’s really gunna hold onto these lyrics. So if they are, am I really saying something to them.
Interview has been edited for clarity.
Part 2 “Ruby Ibarra Gives Voice to the Voiceless” of the interview series publishes next week.