‘Breaking’ Presents: Ruby Ibarra, an MC Turning Immigration Trauma Into Adventurous Rap

By Sameer Rao Oct 20, 2017

Breaking returns with Ruby Ibarra, a rapper who broke out after putting her songs on YouTube in 2010. Five years after releasing her first mixtape, “Lost in Translation,” she’s back with her intimate new album, “Circa91.” 

Hometowns: Tacloban, Philippines, then San Lorenzo, California

Sound: Confessional hip-hop with influences such as Tupac and Lauryn Hill. Ibarra’s intricate lyrics explore her personal struggles and what it means to be Filipina, Brown and a woman in the United States. 

Latest Release: Circa91,” which dropped via Beatrock Music on October 3.

Why You Should Care: Ruby Ibarra is a rising MC whose songs focus on both marginalization and triumphs. She first encountered hip-hop at age 4 while living in the Filipino city of Tacloban. That’s when she saw Francis Magalona, one of the first commercially successful Filipino rap artists, on a variety television show. “I was completely captivated by the rhythms coming out of his mouth and how he used his voice as an instrument,” she says. 

"Dance (The Movement)" feat. Bambu—April 10, 2014

Ibarra started writing her own raps a few years later, after her family moved across the Pacific Ocean to the Bay Area city of San Lorenzo, California. Artists such as Tupac Shakur and Lauryn Hill, whom she samples on “Circa91” opener “Brown Out,” inspired her to tell her own story in her music. 

"Who I Am"—October 24, 2010

In 2010, after several years of promoting her music on forums including RapMusic.com, Ibarra began posting studio performance videos on YouTube. Her fanbase grew with each video and led to her joining the 2011 Rock the Bells tour featuring icons such as Hill, Nas, Erykah Badu and Mobb Deep. Around the same time, she received an unexpected cosign by veteran New York City radio personality and artist DJ Kay Slay. “He’s one of the most iconic hip-hop DJs, and I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to meet him,” says Ibarra. Slay went on to interview her on Sirius XM’s Shade 45 channel and to host her debut mixtape, “Lost in Translation," which dropped in 2012.

“Circa91” establishes Ibarra’s power as a storyteller. The album’s title references the year her parents emigrated to the United States, and its 18 songs and skits that effortlessly move between English and Tagalog. Standouts include “Voices I,” her story of being forced into an unnecessary English-as-Second-Language program at school, and "Descent," which deals with people constantly questioning where she’s from.

Broken Mirrors," which addresses her father’s alcoholism and abandonment, is the most candid track. The opening verse, says Ibarra, was the most difficult to write. A sample:   


Reflections of a 5-year old looking in the rear view/
rnttWondering why she ain’t got a father like her peers do/
rnttInstead they got to babysit it, ten years later, been a minute/
rnttBut before you learn to lose trust, it takes a certain limit/
rnttProduct of a single mother, fucked up, when I think of love/
rnttFather figure packed up, it’s never been enough/
rnttSo I’m ducking when I catch a feeling, hate is what my heart is spillin’,
rnttPapa killed this fate, a million times, so how do I forgive him?

“Circa91” matches these gripping narratives with celebrations of resilience. And Ibarra doesn’t shy away from discussing race. For instance, “7000 Miles” repeats the refrain, “My mom will make it in America,” in between verses that send up colorism and assimilation:


Look into the mirror, oh, Filipino blood and bones/
rnttQuestioning my skin and tone like I should I be embarrassed though/
rnttWhiter skin is seen as gold, this is what we’re always told/
rnttMama said to learn their way, every day I emulate/
rntt‘Til identity erased, overcome by inner hate/
rnttTeacher said to hide my tongue, theydon’t understand me none/
rnttHold my breath these foreign lungs too powerful they like a gun!

Ibarra describes “Circa91” as “a story of bridging two identities, trying to form a concrete one.” It’s a story that ultimately transcends ethnicity or geography.

Ruby Ibarra’s new album, “Circa91,” is out now via Beatrock Music. Listen to the album below, and visit her website to learn more.