Why you should care
Because beating up the mic this bad would be a crime if it didn’t sound so good.
When Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday hit platinum status in 2010, it became the first album by a female MC to do so in nearly a decade. With the exception of Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, and a few other up-and-comers, the mainstream female rap scene has since remained, well, pretty quiet.
Enter Ruby Ibarra, a 5-foot, 26-year-old dynamite of an MC who wants to put female rappers on the map — and prove she can hold her own among her male peers. Philippines-born and Cali-bred, Ibarra describes her style as reminiscent of ’90s hip-hop, driven by a hard-hitting flow and an arsenal of poetic, sometimes political lyrics from years of performing spoken word. She released her debut mixtape, Lost in Translation, last May. Today, she’s touring and working on her second mixtape, expected to drop before this summer.
And can she work a crowd — rapping each verse with razor precision as she struts with swag and bravado.
Ibarra turned into a hip-hop head as a toddler in Tacloban, the Philippines, when she first saw national rap legend Francis Magalona performing on TV. “I remember naturally gravitating toward that sound, and how it sounded so poetic, and that boom-bap beat,” she says.
When she was in kindergarten, her mom bought her the soundtrack to the movie Friday, starring rapper Ice Cube. Soon afterward, she discovered lyrical geniuses Tupac and Eminem, and fell in love with Shel Silverstein’s poetry. After her family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in San Lorenzo, California, the teen started penning her own rhymes as an emotional outlet during her parents’ divorce.
It wasn’t until a 10th-grade drama class showcase that she ventured from bedroom to stage. At first, her mind reeled. But her fear eventually gave way to exhilaration. Meanwhile, audience members were stunned that their studious, “typical Asian” classmate could actually spit. From then on, she was hooked on performing.
As a college student at UC Davis, Ibarra performed with SickSpits and other spoken-word collectives. “It really helped with my delivery and stage performance,” she says. And can she work a crowd — rapping each verse with razor precision as she struts with swag and bravado.
Ibarra says being an Asian woman often intrigues people right away. “I don’t look or sound like your average rapper,” she says. “But I have to prove myself a lot more also.” Amid viewers praising her “mad bars” and “stupid dope moves,” she comes across the occasional racist or sexist video comment. “I just have to ignore it. At the end of the day, this is what I love to do.”
Ibarra doesn’t envision her sexuality being a primary focus of her music, running counter to major hip-hop labels.
Ibarra hails from a cadre of Filipino MCs — such as Bambu, Geologic of Blue Scholars, and Power Struggle — who have been steadily gaining visibility for about a decade. Most are activists first, who also happen make music. As a result, their songs often tackle political issues, such as the immigrant experience. At a time when 2 Chainz, Rick Ross and other hip-hop titans are rapping about booty and Rosé, mainstream listeners might find Filipino MCs’ politically progressive lyrics harder to swallow. “Mainstream will be a challenge,” says Anthony Kwame-Harrison, a sociology professor at Virginia Tech University.
Lost in Translation puts a fresh lyrical spin on samples from ’90s-era hip-hop. Game Up showcases Ibarra seamlessly switching between English and Tagalog over a heavy underground beat. She urges women to find their own self-worth on her favorite track, Guess Who. And in LIT, she laments losing her Filipino roots in her struggle to adapt to American culture. She rhymes: And so I tried to translate, hyphenate the culture gap / Never realizing hiding that was putting culture back.
Although the music video for Game Up features Ibarra scowling in a black hoodie, the rapper also has a soft side. “I’m a huge Backstreet Boys and N’Sync fan,” she confesses.
But that unexpectedness plays out in a bigger way. Both onstage and online, Ibarra “seems like an unassuming figure,” says Erik Nielson, an assistant professor who teaches hip-hop culture at the University of Richmond. Her website is still under construction, and her YouTube page features only a handful of videos. ”There’s really no PR apparatus… . But then you listen to her music, and it’s outstanding, her lyrical dexterity.”
As someone whose lyrics often attack capitalism, Ibarra “seems reluctant to start treating herself as a brand.” Nielson thinks she might be grappling with becoming part of a system she’s trying to critique. ”I think ultimately that’s going to make her a better lyricist, but I see that as being a weakness if her goal is to reach a big audience.”
And it’s doubly challenging for a socially concious female MC. Ibarra doesn’t envision her sexuality being a primary focus of her music, running counter to major hip-hop labels, “which expect women to be hypersexual figures,” Nielson says. “Female artists who aren’t willing to do it face an uphill battle.”
For now, Ibarra is writing songs for her second mixtape, which she says will feature more personal lyrics.
“I hope after showing I can rap alongside my male counterparts, people will acknowledge and be more welcoming to female artists,” she says. But at the same time, “hopefully the music will speak for itself and I won’t be categorized into a certain gender or ethnicity box.” Her music has spoken — and we can’t stop listening. Watch out, Nicki.