Ruby ibarra raps, unapologetically, about filipina experience – san francisco chronicle electricity formulas physics


From there, Ibarra’s obsession with “using words, languages as an instrument” was set. In fifth grade, students had to memorize a piece by Shel Silverstein. Ibarra memorized the longest one in the book; it took her more than a minute to recite. “I just loved the fact that he was using language in a way I had never seen before,” she said.

That’s when, pushed along by the narrative power of albums like “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and the lyrical tricks in Eminem’s “The Slim Shady LP,” Ibarra started writing her own poetry. Her first performance, an a cappella rap done in a high school drama class, about her father who had recently left her mother, caught her friends off guard.

Ibarra started uploading songs to the Internet in high school. A few years later, one of her tracks, “Dosey Doe,” a rap over an “old ’90s beat,” that she put out without any promotion or marketing behind it, ended up grabbing 100,000 views in a few months. This also happened a few times while she was studying biochemistry at UC Davis.

Her identity, her family’s immigration story, her life, has always been at the forefront of her music. But it wasn’t until “Circa 1991,” released last fall on the independent label Beatrock Music, that she committed to telling her story through hip-hop.

With her mixtape, she’d focused on technicality and complex rhymes. But the more she thought about the kind of legacy she wanted to leave behind, Ibarra realized she’d “rather go the route where I create songs that people can identify with, rather than trying to prove myself.”

On “Circa 1991,” which was produced by a label that supports other Asian American and Pacific Islander artists, Ibarra speaks directly to and about Filipinas, and the Filipino experience as she knows it. Part of that means using their languages in her rhymes.

Often, in the same line, Ibarra will switch among English and Tagalog and Waray — a dialect spoken in Tacloban, the town where she was born — so seamlessly you sometimes miss it. Tagalog and Waray, Ibarra said, are perfect for the music she makes; they’re percussive, they’re consonant-driven.

“I think what sets Ruby apart from other rappers in general, technically, is that she has such a quick tongue,” said Kae Hope Echiverri Ranoa, another Bay Area Filipina rapper who goes by Hopie and has known Ibarra for about 10 years. “When she raps in triplets, or just says these multiples, you can understand every syllable she says.”

In a track titled “7,000 Miles,” she goes in on the colorism she’s experienced. “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.”

Ibarra’s mother has been to more of her daughter’s shows than anybody else. At Bottom of the Hill, she was working the merchandise table, alongside Ibarra’s fiance. She encourages Ibarra to quit her day job as a scientist working in the quality control department of an East Bay lab and pursue music full time — that’s not what a lot of children of immigrants hear. “Sometimes I feel like there’s a role reversal,” Ibarra said, with a laugh.

And it’s clear Ibarra is reaching people. Earlier this year, she put out a call on Twitter for 100 Filipinas to appear in the music video for “Us,” which features three other Filipina musicians, Working Klass Klassy, Faith Santilla and label mate Rocky Rivera. The call time was 1 p.m.

“At 10:30 in the morning, we already had well over 150, already sitting down, waiting for call time,” she said.“Just seeing that, just seeing the range of people that showed up, I think was a testament to the fact that people want to feel represented, want to be visible.”

The video, released in March, features women holding up their fists up in solidarity and staring down the camera. In parts, some are performing traditional dance, some are cruising around in a lowrider, some are wearing traditional Filipino clothing. Hopie is in the video in a classic Maria Clara dress.

That Ibarra would credit her best performance to the crowd — to the audience full of Filipinas who pushed to the front and sang with her — seemed right. The music Ibarra makes and performs might be about her, but it’s always for her island women.