Born in the Philippines and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ruby Ibarra is not your average rapper.
She uses hip-hop to speak unapologetically about her experiences as a first-generation Filipino-American immigrant and a brown woman. Her first album, "Circa 91," refers to the year her family moved to the U.S. and, while expertly flipping between English and Filipino dialects, she talks about her family's immigration story, growing up with racism, and navigating issues such as colonial mentality in the Filipino community.
Ibarra recently performed at the Bootleg Theater in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown, where she talked about her early musical influences and how her lyrics reflect important moments and issues in her life.
"I was four years old when I was first introduced to hip-hop. I just remember being in my family's home and watching one of those Filipino variety shows," said Ibarra, referring to popular programs that air in the Philippines and on Filipino-American television networks.
"The performer on stage, he was rapping, he was dancing. I think he had kind of those MC Hammer baggy pants. He went by the name Francis M — the late Francis Magalona. He's one of the founding fathers of hip-hop in the Philippines."
Ibarra fell in love with hip-hop after being entranced by Francis M's performance and artistry. Her influences include a mix of '90s and early aughts hip-hop artists — Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, and the Bay Area rapper, Mac Dre. But Ibarra's lyrical style is perhaps most similar to Francis M.
"He was very political in his lyrics and socially conscious," Ibarra said. "So I think we actually came full circle. I try to put important issues and topics in the forefront of my lyrics."
Ibarra began writing rhymes at the age of 13 and gained fame after releasing performance videos on YouTube in 2010 and her mixtape, "Lost in Translation," in 2012.
Her first album, "Circa 91," is centered on her family's experience immigrating from the Philippines to the U.S.. Ibarra was born in Tacloban City, a provincial city in the Visayas Islands that is perhaps most known internationally for being greatly affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
"I know for my parents, their number one goal was always and will always be me and my sister ... getting an education," said Ibarra, "and living a life more comfortable than they ever did in the Philippines. But I think my parents and other immigrant families are never really prepared for the harsh realities that they experience once they come here."
Ibarra said she could see how her parents, as adult immigrants who still had ties to the homeland, felt like outsiders in America. Even though she grew up in a place like the Bay Area, which she calls "a melting pot of different races, different cultures," it was still hard to escape stereotypes and racism.
Her mother worked long hours and her father eventually left the family. In the song, "The Other Side, Welcome," Ibarra wanted to talk about what her family expected in America and how it's not always what you think it's going to be:
Welcome, welcome, welcome
I said welcome to the Philippines, mabuhay
Where we sleep Americana dreams, a new life
Auntie said stay in your home, might get darker 'cause you prone
Look into the mirror, oh, Filipino blood and bones
Questioning my skin and tone like I should I be embarrassed though
Whiter skin is seen as gold, this is what we’re always told
"There's nothing wrong with being, obviously, half-Pinoy or half-Pinay. Having two cultures is beautiful," Ibarra said. "But at the same time we don’t have equal representation. We need to also embrace the morenos, morenas and the kayumanggis — people that are brown-skinned."
Filipino-Americans have a rich history in hip-hop that includes DJs, breakdancers and artists such as Bambu, Kiwi, Blue Scholars, and Hopie Spitshard. Ibarra's track, "Us" — an anthem for Filipinas — features the poet Faith Santilla and rappers Rocky Rivera and Klassy. They are Filipino-American women and artists who Ibarra looks up to.
"'Us' is actually my very favorite song on the album. I wanted there to be female voices first and foremost," Ibarra said. "Just having all these strong, bad ass Pinays representing on the track ... A Pinay version of Beyonce's 'Formation.' That’s what instantly popped up in my head."
Ibarra made a conscious decision to rap in Filipino dialects as well as English. The album includes songs such as "Playbill$" which feature lyrics in Filipino, the national language, and Waray, a dialect native to her and her mother's hometown. In the past, she has also rapped in Cebuano, a dialect spoken in various regions of the Philippines, including her father's hometown of Davao.
"From a rapper's standpoint, Waray and Tagalog are very percussive. I felt like it was perfect for hip-hop," Ibarra said. "It just completes the story if I also tell it from those languages. It's beautiful languages that people need to hear."
"I’m not here to say that my experience, especially in the album, is the definitive Filipino-American experience," Ibarra said. "It’s just one lens, one glimpse of the story.
"And that’s why I hope that other artists or other voices out there speak their stories. There needs to be more visibility and representation. If people want to call this activism, then so be it. At the end of the day I just want to speak music that's real and that's true."