SAAFF 2019, Staff Blog

Ruby Ibarra Writes Groundbreaking Raps About Asian American Life

February 16, 2019

By Yaoyao Liu


Though Filipino American rapper Ruby Ibarra is often described as an emerging artist in recent profiles about her album, Circa91, she has been actively making music and performing for about a decade. From performances posted to YouTube in 2010 to gracing a Times Square billboard in 2018, Ibarra has truly embodied her personal motto of “Patience, practice, and perseverance.” Her lyricism and tone have evolved in the process, with songs addressing issues in diasporic Filipino life, the pain associated with assimilation in America, and contending with issues of Asian American femininity amidst struggles with colorism and stereotypes.


The title of her most recent album, Circa91, refers to the year her family emigrated from the Philippines to the United States. They settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to one of the largest Filipino American communities in the country. Even in a purportedly diverse city, however, Ibarra grew up watching her parents being treated like outsiders in America. As a young person between two cultures, she was pressured to cast aside her Filipino identity and history. In her song “The Other Side, Welcome,” Ibarra talks about how “[it’s] always on their terms, any percent you earn.” Even with her parents making a life and contributing to their community in America, they still were subjected to the dangers of an exploitative system that benefits those in power, while deprioritizing the needs of those most marginalized.


One of the most common and damaging assimilative obstacles that many recent Asian American immigrants face is the demand that they learn English, and refrain from using the language(s) of their homelands in everyday interactions. As a direct challenge to this discriminatory expectation, Ibarra made a conscious decision to rap in Waray, Cebuano, and Tagalog, all of which are spoken in the Philippines. In the song “Voices I,” she discusses the experience of being forced into an English-as-Second-Language program at school, and how language plays a huge role in her understanding of identity. For Ibarra, her use of multiple languages is necessary in “[completing] the story” told in her music, especially in songs about exploring her diasporic identity.


Perhaps what is most inspiring about Ibarra’s music is her adamant and uncompromising dedication to empowering Asian American women, especially fellow Filipino American women. She made her directorial debut with the music video called “US,” which is a collaboration with rappers Working Klass Klassy, Rocky Rivera, and poet Faith Santilla. The project highlights the contributions Filipino Americans have made throughout feminist and labor history, focusing on figures such as Nieves Fernandez and leaders in the United Farm Workers Movement. Ibarra’s work challenges stereotypes about women of Asian descent as obedient or docile, and also draws upon a wealth of historical and cultural references to uplift Asian American women. Ibarra’s work in hip-hop as a genre reflects a long history of rappers and musicians integrating art and activism.


Ruby Ibarra will be performing at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival’s Opening Night Party on February 21, 2019, alongside rocker Japanese Breakfast and Jyun Jyun, an experimental musician/visual artist from the Bay Area. The combination of these three acts will showcase the range of Asian American musical talent, which is especially important in an entertainment industry that mostly benefits white men. Aligning with the themes of Ibarra’s music, the festival will feature films that deal with Asian American immigration, assimilation, and empowerment.


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