Interview by Andrea Miralles
Ruby Ibarra gets personal. In Part 2 of the three-part interview series, we cover Ruby’s relationship with poetry and music, the socially critical themes behind her lyrics (smashing patriarchy, feminism, and Pinay representation), and the possibility of a full-time career in music.
When did you start writing poetry and performing spoken word? What inspired you to get into writing and later performing? How does it make you feel expressing yourself in this raw form? I actually did rap music before I did spoken word. With artists I’ve come across, it’s usually the other way around. I had no idea [what spoken word was] until I went to UC Davis and watched a slam poetry event for the first time in my life. I was completely blown away hearing this art form and seeing the power of words really amplified for the first time. I fell in love with spoken word that very night. It was basically hip hop but stripped down of all the music. It was just an artist on the stage being completely vulnerable with the audience. I was really, really drawn to that, and I loved it. I take these elements of spoken word and my experience as a spoken word artist during college and incorporate it into my music.
Obviously, words are powerful. I think hip hop and spoken word are both art forms that came about because people who didn’t feel like they have a voice wanted to share their story. They’re both powerful tools.
The kind of lyrics I’ve been writing makes me feel vulnerable, especially when I'm talking about my family or my own personal experiences. At first, I was afraid to approach music that way. People can get a glimpse of that because when I released my first mixtape in 2012, a lot of the songs were more on the lyrical side with me trying to show myself as a rap artist and prove myself on the microphone, not really giving people a glimpse of who I was—or who the person behind the mic was. When it came to writing the album Circa 91, I was giving people a glimpse of what my life and childhood was like, what experiences I went through.
At first, I was afraid of writing that down or recording that on the microphone. I think sometimes as an artist, when we feel like we’re giving too much of ourselves, it’s very terrifying. We feel completely vulnerable, but it’s in those moments of vulnerability that music becomes so much more beautiful because there's so many people out there that you’d never imagine that can relate to what you’re talking about.
What was the transition into music like, and how did you begin to envision yourself as a music artist and then execute your goals? For the longest time, I didn’t even know if I wanted to pursue music professionally. It’s always been a hobby of mine. I was writing poems, writing lyrics since I was seven or eight years old. It wasn’t until I was in college performing with the campus slam team or performing as a solo artist in nearby colleges that I got on stage. Even at that point, I thought, “This is just a passion of mine, a hobby, not necessarily something that would be viable for me or that I could make a career out of.”
It wasn’t until I was done with college and had my first job, continuously working that 9-5 grind, that I was like, “I feel like there’s something missing in my life.” So, I started putting up videos on YouTube. Seeing the amount of people that were watching them made me realize for the first time that I could have an audience doing this. I’ve just been really lucky that the video and album releases have brought me to places I never thought I’d be able to perform.
Now, I'm very fortunate that I'm in a position where, if I wanted to, I can pursue music full time, and I do see it as a possible career option for me now. It’s very satisfying for me and very humbling to know that I can go that route if I wanted to. I definitely hope that it leads me to that point sometime soon because, music has always been part of my life.
As a little kid, after my family moved to America from the Philippines, I would always hear music in our neighborhood and listen to my mom’s cassette tape of Francis Magalona. We were trying to assimilate to the culture here and feel like we still had ties to the Philippines back home. Music has always been part of my journey. It’s been something that I had in my life when I needed something to give me comfort, and now it's my way of expressing myself and my way of connecting with people. I'm definitely very excited to see where it leads me to next, and hopefully I can be doing it full time.
“Island woman rise, walang makakatigil”—how’d you come up with this lyric? In general, what does your thought process look like when writing, especially your Taglish verses? First, “Island woman rise“, I have to give credit where credit is due, that line was written by Klassy, who’s on the song. I knew when I was making Circa 91 that I wanted to dedicate at least one track to nothing but female voices, specifically Pinay voices. I feel like, if I was gunna make an album about my immigration experience or my experience as a Filipina American, it would be incomplete without the Pinay voice. Coming from a very patriarchal culture, often times when we talk about the Filipino experience, again, the Pinay voice is left out, so I knew that this was something I definitely wanted to have on my album. So, when I heard that beat for the first time, I was shook, my face—it was that moment where you feel like your face is melting from the music. I was like, “This is the one, this is the song that I'm gunna have other Pinay voices on.” I was just lucky to have Rocky, Klass,y and Faith willing to hop on that track.
I remember sending it out to Klassy first. At first, we wanted her to be on the chorus, and she completely, of course, created an anthem with that hook, and I said, “Ok you have to add a verse to it too.” After that, Rocky did her thing, and Faith added her absolutely memorable and iconic poem at the end of that song. I was very happy with the outcome.
To answer your next question about writing Taglish verses, before, I would always try to include Tagalog or my family’s dialect Waray into my music. Phonetically it sounds really cool when it’s rapped. I’ve said this several times before, that the Filipino dialects are very percussive, so it’s perfect for hip hop. When I realized I was making an album about my immigrant story, I thought that if I didn't have Taglish, or even Tagalog, or these other dialects in the lyrics, it would be incomplete because you can’t have an immigrant story without having the language there too because language is such a big part of it. Growing up in the Bay Area, being in a neighborhood that was so culturally diverse, that had so many different immigrant families, you would always hear the beautiful sounds of another language.
It added to the story to be able to incorporate Tagalog verses and lines in the music. So, it was something that I did on purpose; I definitely did that to make a point. I do also wanna note that I was able to write those verses with the help of my mom, who would be the one to make sure they were correct. She was always my go-to when it came to confirming, “Can you double check my lyrics real quick?”
Like your song “Us” and that verse, many of your songs are in support and solidarity with women, what prompted your feminism and support for women? Would you describe yourself as a feminist? Or how would you describe your views and involvement? I am definitely a feminist. A lot of the themes—specifically for “Us”—were geared toward empowering women because, again, Filipino culture is very patriarchal and I wanted to challenge that. Even hip hop is still very much male-dominated. Even when we do get representations of women in rap, like we see with artists like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, they’re so often pitted against each other, so I definitely wanted to challenge those narratives within Filipino and hip hop culture. That’s why I wanted to create a song like “Us”, where we have a song that not only empowers women, but also celebrates sisterhood. Celebrating sisterhood is very much important—it’s just, again, to challenge a lot of these notions that are taught to us at a very early age that women always have to be pitted against each other or that there can only be one queen bee. I’ve always thought that that’s completely ridiculous. You know, we’re stronger together. Instead of being pitted against one another, we should be collaborating and creating more powerful things together.
Also, in my other songs like “Broken Mirrors”, I talk about rape or societal pressures of body image. I wanted to include that in my music and the poetry I’ve done in the past because I think that the media and other powers that be continually try to force these notions in our heads that women have to be defined in a certain way. I think that we should continually challenge that and show people that there’s a vast amount of stories and different forms, and different meanings and definitions about what it means to be a woman.
It’s clear from the themes in your music that you care about empowering women, people of color, and immigrants—how would you describe your mission and focus along social justice and political lines. What issues take priority in your eyes? When it comes to prioritizing what issues I focus on in my lyrics, I try to talk about things or stories that I feel like aren’t often discussed. I think that goes along with smashing patriarchy and sharing my immigrant story. Especially with things that are very relevant right now in our current political climate in this country, we have to continually share these stories. Music still remains to be one of the most powerful platforms. It's important for me as an artist to take responsibility of that and make sure that I share these specific themes in my music.
I think my main mission as an artist is really just to share my truth. I think people can tell right away if an artist is authentic or not. At the end of the day, I respect this platform and this culture, so I wanna make sure that things I’m speaking into the mic are not only things I went through, but also things I believe in, and things I feel like need to be told. I think hip hop has always been the voice for the voiceless, and if I can serve as a voice for someone out there listening to the music, I feel like I would have accomplished what I wanted to accomplish as an artist.