With lyrics that contend with identity and the immigrant experience, Ruby Ibarra recognizes her responsibility as a Filipino American artist.
Waves of immigrants emboldened by the American Dream have made the US home to the largest number of Filipinos abroad. For many, that dream has morphed into a myth. For the Bay Area-bred Ibarra, her early experiences in America have only kindled her music, art, and activism.
Born in Tacloban, Ruby Ibarra and her family migrated to California in 1991. When she was seven, she saw her mom take on a job as a McDonald’s cashier, and then later, a welder at a manufacturing plant, despite being educated as an accountant back home. “She would come home with scars on her hands because she worked with large machinery. My mom is even shorter than me at four foot ten,” Ibarra shares.
Ruby, now a rapper on the rise, beams in from Los Angeles and tells Vogue about the time she met Maria Ressa. In March 2019, Ibarra and her band The Balikbayans played a set at Rappler’s Manila office. Ressa and director Ramona Diaz were shooting scenes for the Emmy-award winning documentary A Thousand Cuts, and Ibarra recalls Ressa telling her band, “The work that you do as musicians is even more important than what we do as journalists.” The rapper remembers Ressa telling her, “Journalism—especially through text—reaches a certain number of people. Not everybody has the resources to buy magazines and newspapers. Keep doing what you do because you’re reaching more people than we are.” The message struck her and further fueled the emcee’s broader purpose.
For Ibarra, music kept the connection to her homeland alive, post U.S. migration. Many diasporic artists share the same narrative, like Beabadoobee in the U.K., whose childhood was soundtracked by OPM’s Apo Hiking Society and the Eraserheads, introduced by her OFW parents. In contrast to their harana-ready sounds, Ibarra was drawn to hip-hop and Francis Magalona’s performances on the Pinoy variety show Eat Bulaga. Once her family moved to Northern California, Ibarra’s musical influences expanded to include American rap legends, like Lauryn Hill, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube.
“Music was the platform I turned to each time I felt too far from home. I would pop in my mom’s Francis cassette tape and listen to it over and over again to feel like I was back home with my lola and cousins,” she says.
Before Ibarra could funnel her message into her own songs and lyrics, she did the work of unpacking who she was, free from balancing expectations from two cultures. “It took me a while to translate that into the music because of all the erasure [I grew up with]. When I was younger, I would record myself multiple times until it sounded like my [Filipino] accent was gone—even my accent was something I was afraid to let out,” she says.
Even with the Pacific Ocean separating her from the Philippines and its beauty standards, Ibarra was still all too familiar with her proximity to whiteness. She recounts pinching her nose and adding skin lightening soaps to her cart while shopping. “I didn’t know who I was. When we don’t know who we are, we start assimilating to things we don’t understand,” she explains. While attending University of California, Davis, she took an ethnic studies class, where the floodgates opened and the modern effects of colonialism came into tangible light. It was around this time that fitting into these preconceived molds lost its grip on her. Soon enough, she uncovered the pride in history and the strength in resistance.
And with that came the music. In 2017, Ibarra debuted her first full-length album CIRCA91—18 tracks encapsulating the hope and heartbreak shared by Filipino American immigrants. Switching between three languages (English, Tagalog, and her native Waray), the project spoke against the Filipino patriarchy, colorism, and even the rampant corruption and violence back in the homeland. In “Us,” Ibarra calls us to action with, “Brown, brown woman rise” and empowers Filipino sisterhood with a reminder that: “Your DNA contains building blocks made from the / Mud of over 500 years of resistance and survival/And when you are ready, sis, we’ll be right here.” In “7000 Miles,” the often-invisible struggles of assimilation are depicted with lyrics like: “Mama said to learn their way, every day I emulate / ‘Til identity erased, overcome by inner hate.”
Five years after CIRCA91’s release, Ibarra has since quit her 9-to-5 working as a research scientist and currently pursues music full-time. Highlights from the last couple years include fronting a Spotify-sponsored billboard in Times Square, song placements in the American drama series The Cleaning Lady (Fox), the video game NBA 2K23, and Ramona Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts. Recently awarded the 2023 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, Ruby is set to release her sophomore album early this year.
Ibarra finds the most pride in paying the opportunity forward. “We can’t do this thing by ourselves. It’s going to take a team. That means hiring bandmates, stage managers, videographers in my community and opening the doors and telling them, ‘Let’s enter this space together.’”
Filipinos have had a historic run of mainstream representation in the last few years thanks to the commercial and critical success of Olivia Rodrigo, H.E.R., and more recently the chart-topping Steve Lacy. And while representation remains valuable, Ibarra is looking forward to what comes after. She’s encouraged by the storytellers emerging in different creative fields. “We finally have control over how we document ourselves. It’s about owning our stories, so we get to define what it means to be Filipino.” Within her own artistry, Ibarra goes on to promise, “If we’re still in a time when we’re not learning about ourselves in public education, or if we’re not learning it from the books or on TV, then I’m gonna give it to you in music.”
Even with her eye on the future, she doesn’t forget where she comes from or her responsibility as a Filipino American. “I know my counterpart in the Philippines would be a completely different lived experience,” she acknowledges. “My responsibility is to not only represent my people when I’m on television or on the radio, but to also show that I’m learning about what’s going on in the Philippines and letting them know that I’m standing in solidarity with ya’ll.”
Ruby Ibarra is hopeful, and after talking to her, so am I. After all, as Filipinos, we are dreamers.