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  • Speaking to Her People: How Rapper Ruby Ibarra Sings to and about Immigrants

    Camera: Charlie Weber, Albert Tong, Rameshwar Bhatt, Colin Stucki, Jackson Harvey, Andrea Curran, Pruitt Allen, Lauren Jackson, Harry Zhu, Albouri Ndiaye
    Editing: Harry Zhu

    While we in the United States spend July 4 celebrating American Independence, the day also marks Filipino Independence, a holiday also known as Filipino-American Friendship Day. We honor this day by telling the stories of Filipino Americans like Ruby Ibarra, a rapper and spoken word artist who performed at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

    New listeners to Ruby Ibarra’s music may hear familiar stories of the struggles of immigrants and people of color in America, but they may also hear something unfamiliar: Tagalog and Waray. These languages originate in the Philippines, just like Ibarra. Both are especially percussive languages: perfect for a hip-hop MC. By rapping in them, as well as in English, she is able to share the stories of Filipino immigrants in the most personal way.

    “I think it’s impossible to tell a story like that without language being a part of it,” Ibarra says of the lyrics on her 2017 album Circa91. “I have the privilege to show people what our language sounds like. Hip-hop is the perfect medium to express that. It’s the medium for the marginalized people.”

    Ibarra grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and began her performance career as a spoken word artist. The influence of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the Bay Area has seeped into her music, as has the passion and message of spoken word. On the shoulders of prominent American rappers like Tupac and Lauryn Hill, and Filipino American hip-hop artists like Bambu, Blue Scholars, and Rocky Rivera, Ibarra raps about poverty, work, her mother, race, lack of opportunities, important Filipino figures, and so much more.

    “Music for me has always been a vessel for me to speak my truth.”

    Ruby Ibarra at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Ruby Ibarra at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Photo by Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Her lyrics are imbued with political messages and personal strife as she speaks directly to other Filipino Americans who intimately understand her experience, but she also shares a greater message for the world about her people.

    “Right now we’re at a pivotal moment where we’re talking about immigration, but a lot of specific stories coming from immigrants themselves are still not being told. Moving forward, I would like to see other artists doing that.”

    At her performance at the 2019 Folklife Festival, centered on the “social power of music,” Ibarra made several calls to “Abolish ICE” (the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) while boldly facing the U.S. Capitol building.

    “I’m honored to be at a site with so much history, to be able to bring an album like Circa91, which is about the experience of immigrants, and to do it here,” Ibarra said. “This is a perfect place to proclaim who I am and let people know where I’m from.”

    Ibarra wants to do for others what The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill did for her: provide a “soundtrack for the teenage years” and create music that young people, especially young women and Filipinos, can see themselves in—a rare opportunity in hip-hop today.

    “I want to continue to be an artist who helps people feel seen, and I’m just hoping that I can do that in a way that I can be honest with myself and true to my experiences,” Ibarra said in an interview just before her performance. Later, we spoke to fans, many of whom lined up on the National Mall, waiting to meet her. There is little doubt that Ibarra is achieving her goal of helping her people feel seen.

    Ruby Ibarra at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Ruby Ibarra at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “Growing up Filipino American, I never truly felt like I was represented, and I never really felt like I had someone like that to look up to, someone that made me feel empowered,” said Cassidy, a Festival visitor. “Seeing someone like Ruby has been inspirational. I’ve never felt that empowered to be brown and to be Filipino. But seeing her rap with such passion, it makes me feel empowered to be who I am.”

    “What she went through as a Filipino American just resonated with me,” said another fan, Christine, who was thrilled to find out that Ibarra works in biotechnology. “I was like, “Wow, you’re a rapper, and a scientist, and Filipino.”

    As for the future of her music, Ibarra wants to get more experimental with her sound but remain true to her story, her people, and her message.

    “I’m planting the seeds for the next generation, and hopefully my music is having an impact on the young Pinays and Pinoys out there, and the entire Filipino community.”

    Ruby Ibarra at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Ruby Ibarra at the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Riley Board is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a rising sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont where she studies linguistics and geography.

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