At the ECAASU 2019 Conference: Introspection, Nica Ramirez and I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruby Ibarra, a famous Pilipina American rapper from the Bay Area known for her groundbreaking album “Circa 91.” Ruby’s album embodies her Pilipina American identity through her mastery of spitting verses in both Tagalog and Bisaya. Her song “Here” spotlights her Visayan roots when she deems herself as “Tacloban City’s Finest.” As a fellow Visayan woman, I had the opportunity to ask her about how she defines being Visayan. Ruby speaks on her lack of knowledge about her Visayan identity due to the scarcity of Visayan people in the area where she grew up.
“I know when I was a little kid, that very specific identity of being Visayan to me was really something I couldn’t really wrap my head around,” explained Ruby. “Because even though I grew up in the Bay Area in California, where it was just a melting pot of different cultures, I would say probably in all the years that I’ve lived, I’ve only met two other people who were Visayan.”
Ruby’s relationship with her identity reveals the common experience of many other Pilipinos in the diaspora—the yearning to learn more about your family history in an effort to bridge generational gaps.
“So I mean, you know, when we talk about Philippine history, we say like the word ‘Marcos’, it’s such a big part of, you know, being Visayan like Imelda Marcos and I know, you know, me and my mom tried to have conversations around politics that are on those things. And I just see the generational gaps and as specifically, you know, for someone like her who grew up in the Visayas during that era too, it’s a lot of stuff to unpack.”
Beyond her Visayan identity, Ruby shared with us her thrilling experience in landing a nationwide Mastercard commercial in December of 2017. While en route to Manila to spend Christmas with family, Ruby received an email asking her if she would be interested in rapping for the commercial. She distinctly remembers reading the reply while in line for her Philippine Airlines flight in the airport asking her to submit a 16-bar verse. Despite the time constraint and the strange circumstances, Ruby proceeded to write her piece with conviction.
“And then so I find the most quiet spot in the airport waiting to board the plane and I record it on the video recorder, like the memo thing on my iPhone,” Ruby said. “They send me the beat and recording along to it, like through my sister’s phone and then I’m thinking, ‘Crap! Like, I’m trying to get this done.’”
The director heard her track, and the company offered to fly her out of Manila to New York City to film the commercial in a matter of three days. I could sense Ruby’s perseverance and dedication to her craft as she retold this story.
“And then a month later, I see it on TV and then they have the billboard up. There were like so many, I guess what you would call roadblocks or points where I thought like, ‘I don’t have this opportunity, but you just have to keep going at it.'” Ruby explained. “You just keep taking your swings hoping that you hit it.”
“You just have to keep going at it. You just keep taking your swings hoping that you hit it.”
Following the release of the commercial, Ruby gained international fame where she began to perform more international shows in the Philippines. Her experience performing abroad in her homeland contradicted her wary expectations of the reception of her music. Ruby expressed her initial doubts about how a Pilipino audience would react to her rapping.
“I was initially kind of wary about how they would receive it because the Filipino American experience is so different from the Filipino experience, as it is different from a Filipino Canadian experience. Like it’s going to vary per region that you visit,” Ruby said. “But when I got there, the first thing that I heard, like there’s girls in the front row, they’re like ‘Island woman rise. Walang makakatigil!’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’ The fact that, you know, um, I think that it reached beyond just the generational gaps and it reached them. I think at the end of the day what people want is to feel like they have a voice and to feel like they’re represented and hopefully that’s what my music is doing for some people,” said Ruby.
“I think at the end of the day what people want is to feel like they have a voice and to feel like they’re represented and hopefully that’s what my music is doing for some people.”
Ruby’s broad fanbase spans from the Philippines to all over the globe because she has captured the attention of people from the Pilipino diaspora and beyond. Her success is attributed to Ruby’s discriminating eye for detail in letting her talent for storytelling be the guiding pulse throughout her album. Circa 91 draws from Ruby’s mother’s immigration story to the United States. Her album reveals how the struggles of immigrating is intertwined with the aftereffects of colonialism and U.S. empire in the Philippines.
“You know, my mom who had already graduated college in the Philippines, but when she went here, her degree didn’t translate equally here where the first job that she got, even though she got like an economics degree in the Philippines, was she was only able to work as a cashier at Mcdonald’s,” said Ruby.
She questions the access to resources for Pilipinos in a globalized society capitalizing off of disposable labor.
Ruby asked, “Why don’t degrees translate equally when you’re coming from a country like the Philippines to the US? And why aren’t those opportunities readily available for her?”
The structure of Circa 91 preserves this line of questioning as her thesis to her album. What sacrifices did her mother endure as a first-generation Pilipina American single parent? How does neocolonialism poison our sense of self-worth and beauty as Pinays? How can we carry on a legacy of empowered storytelling?
Ruby explained to us her unorthodox approach in developing the narrative arc of Circa 91. The interludes in her album basically act as skits depicting her experiences as a Pilipina American. These segments draw in the listener and cultivate a deeper, more nuanced look into Ruby’s life.
“I wrote the skits first and then I made the song which was based off of the skits to go along with them. I wanted, I think at the end of the day the music to be secondary to the story, which was the skits and the album. I wanted to make it seem like a movie where after the skit plays, the music serves as a backdrop to what just happened,” said Ruby.
Ruby emphasizes the authenticity and intention behind these skits.
Ruby said, “Every skit that’s on the album are actually based off of real experiences. Like the lines might have changed a little bit, but those were 100% things I actually went through.”
In her album, Ruby honors her mother’s journey by including a recording of her mother reciting the oath of naturalization to become a U.S. citizen. The gravity behind pledging undying loyalty to a nation-state echoes when her mother states the oath, and the oath juxtaposed with the anthem-like songs like “Us” advocating for Pinay Power reveals the complexities of national, ethnic, racial identities—especially for Pilipino Americans.
“Because for me [the oath] was that part of that album where I wanted to represent us, like kind of losing a sense of our self. Cause when you say those words and you’re kind of basically promising to this new place that you’re going to be loyal to this new country that you become a citizen of. You’re kind of letting go,” said Ruby.
Peppered across all of her songs, Ruby pays homage to the long history of resistance in the Philippines with the use of protest chants like “Isang Bagsak!” which translates to “one down” or “one fall” in Tagalog.
Ruby said, “To me, ‘Isang Bagsak’ now means basically community like coming together. Like we are all going to rise and fall together. And I’ve never felt, you know, the, the power and the impact of a community until we came out with that ‘Us’ video, and we had over 150 Pinays show up to the video shoot. These were all women that just volunteered their talents, their time, their costumes, their dances.”
Unlike other rappers, Ruby does not sport a stylish stage name. Ruby admitted that she could not find a name that truly represented her which was why she decided to use her real name.
“I’m not trying to put on a persona, I’m not trying to put on a fake story. What you hear on that album is 100% what I went through and 100% who I am. So if that’s the kind of music I’m giving out, then I feel like my artist name should be me,” explained Ruby.
When Ruby steps onto the stage, you can feel the ground quaking underneath you as she spits her bombastic explosive bars. Her music proves that there truly is not a privilege higher than “the privilege of having been born a Pilipina.”