Ruby Ibarra is a Filipina-American rapper living in the Bay Area in California who got her start uploading her original songs on YouTube. There, one can find videos and Ibarra rapping in both English and Tagalog, her mother tongue. Born in the Philippines, Ibarra immigrated to the United States when she was four. As evidence of this shift in her life, she often switches between the two languages when she raps. As a female MC, she is already in scarce company, but as an MC who raps in two languages, she is part of an even smaller group. Ibarra also got her start as a spoken word artist, and she brings that lyricism to her music where she delves into her identity as both an immigrant and an Asian American.
Rap has always had a masculine energy to it. Female MC’s are rare today, and even rarer when Ibarra was just starting out. It makes sense. This genre of music is closely tied to misogyny and violence, things that might discourage a woman from entering that world. It is also inherently aggressive, a trait not typically ascribed to Asian American women. Rap is a Black American form of expression, an art form born out of the struggle with institutionalized racism. In a way, that background makes rap a fitting outlet for Ibarra’s words. In order to honestly speak about her experiences as an immigrant woman of color, it makes artistic sense for her to utilize a genre of music that understands where she is coming from. Early rap was very race and socially conscious, something that allows Ibarra to discuss her identity as an Asian American with candor.
In “Who I Am”, Ibarra delves into the colonial history of the Philippines and how it affected the way she grew up. She raps “taught to use papaya soap like whiteness is the antidote/caught in colonized approach/can’t fight this, like I’m at the throat/question it? you start to choke/unless you lessen half your soul/pressin close this flattened nose.” This segment highlights the preference to white beauty standards brought to the Philippines via U.S. occupation and the futility of ever fulfilling those standards. Ibarra brings to light the lasting effects of colonialism in the Philippines. For example, she starts this song in Tagalong, but after the first few lines, she switches over to English. This lyrical move parallels a later line in this song that describes how she felt pressured to abandon Tagalong in favor of English in order to survive in the United States, a pressure that many immigrant children face. The fact that she continues to rap in Tagalog is a sure sign of her struggle against hegemonic order. A struggle against the colonial powers that continue to be.
Ibarra is out here defying stereotypes and subverting tropes in both rap and the immigrant narrative. She’s an Asian American female, she is one of the last demographic groups one would expect to be a rapper and actually be good at it Her flow is aggressive, assertive and confident, a hallmark of a rapper who can spit. They’re also traits that a stereotypical Asian American woman would not possess. By creating this music, Ibarra shows that Asian women are capable of standing up for themselves and the issues they care about. Her Asian American identity is something she is aware of in the rap game, saying that she has a lot more to prove because of her background. None of that discourages her, since her content is based in her upbringing and her culture. Ibarra raps about growing up Filipina American and the challenges she has faced, a fitting use of the art form she chose to represent herself with. Rap is a purely American artform, but Ibarra is able to use it to become closer with her home in the Philippines.