Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Hip-hop has the means to educate the masses, according to Ruby Ibarra, the Filipina-American biotech scientist turned rapper. For Atmos, she breaks down why intentional music-making matters in the era of climate catastrophe. She also curates a Spotify playlist in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month.
“It’s not lost on me that music can be an entryway for difficult conversations,” said Ruby Ibarra, the Filipina-American rapper best known for her album, Circa91. She’s referring to climate change. Despite the overwhelming evidence to indicate that human activity is causing global temperatures to rise to destructive new highs, 15% of Americans remain unconvinced. It’s in part why Ibarra, who has a science major, shifted her focus to music after years spent working as a biotech researcher. “Music is accessible, it’s a way of getting information to many people from all backgrounds,” she added. “We need that now.”
Ibarra was born in Tacloban, in the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, to a musically-gifted family. In fact, she describes her early years on the island as full of song and soul. At age four, her family relocated to San Lorenzo, California, not far from where some of America’s most famous West Coast rappers had once been based. It shouldn’t, then, be surprising that Ibarra is now also a full-time hip-hop artist with a vision to change her communities for the better. And she is well on her way there. Her lyrics—often performed in a mix of English, Waray, and Tagalog—come from the soul, and each song tackles a different contemporary issue through an honest and emotive lens. Her song, Brown Out, for example, is about the pressure of assimilation faced by many immigrant families. Meanwhile, Us—one of her most popular anthems—is a song of Filipina pride, defiance, and solidarity in which she raps: Island woman rise, walang makakatigil. Brown, brown woman rise, alamin ang iyong ugat. They got nothin’ on us.
Below, Ibarra speaks with Atmos about her transition from vaccine scientist to hip-hop artist, and the responsibility of artists to educate their listeners on social and environmental justice. She also curates a Spotify playlist of music by Asian-American or Pacific Islander in honor of AAPI Heritage Month.
To start off, what inspired the playlist you curated for Atmos?
I’m glad you asked—I consider myself a fan of music before I consider myself an artist. I remember running through so many double A batteries as a kid in the ‘90s, listening to hip-hop—and music more generally—on CD players. I always had headphones on. To now curate these playlists in a way that amplifies and highlights artists who I feel are important in different communities is very special for me.
To speak specifically about this playlist, the artists on there are Asian-American or Pacific Islander to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month. It’s about remembering the Asian-American community’s contributions to music and the arts, while also thinking about where we are socially in this country. On one hand, we are seeing a lot more Asian-American representation in film, and we’re seeing K-pop blow up on a global scale. But at the same time, specifically here in the U.S., these last two years throughout the pandemic have seen a rise in anti-Asian violence and hate. For example: I have included artists like Rocky G and Astralogik, who in their songs talk about their cultures, backgrounds, and upbringings, while also speaking on topics such as healing and coming together. It’s important for me to be able to use music as a tool that opens up these conversations about what’s going on, both socially and politically, here.
I love that idea of you listening to music on portable CD players until the batteries run flat. Tell me, how did you go from music-lover to also producing your own music as a DJ and rap artist?
I was introduced to music at a very young age. I was born in the Philippines, and my family didn’t migrate to the U.S. until I was four years old. Those first four years of my life were full of music. I had musicians for cousins and uncles and aunts, and even my mom is a singer and plays the guitar. I saw it all around me growing up to the point where I started asking myself, How come I don’t know how to sing? I wasn’t blessed with that innate talent to be able to vocalize those particular melodies. But, I eventually found a way to express myself through music in different ways.
When my family moved to the U.S., we settled in the Bay Area. That was another blessing. During the ‘90s, West Coast rap music was thriving. Artists like Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Ice Cube were constantly on television—it provided a soundtrack to my childhood. Eventually, once I became a teenager, I got introduced to Lauren Hill, who really influenced how my own voice developed. I was very fortunate to grow up around all these talented musicians who also had a very distinct voice with an important story to tell. That’s what I’ve carried on with me now as an artist: to make sure that I’m intentional about my lyrics and that the music I create, not only serves me but also my community.
“I’ve always felt that music is accessible. It’s more digestible than people reading an article or book on climate change.”
As you’re saying this I keep reminding myself that you’re also trained as a vaccine scientist. That is seriously impressive.
Yes! In college, I majored in biochemistry; molecular biology. I had my nose in the book as I listened to rap. It’s been interesting trying to balance the two. But then last year I became a full-time artist; my schedule made that decision for me. Personally, I felt more fulfilled as an artist, but that’s not to minimize or diminish the work I did as a scientist. Because as you and I both know, the sciences, the medical field, and all the frontline workers are the ones getting us out of this pandemic—I really owe it to that career.
Although you’re no longer a practicing scientist, do you still feel a connection between the scientific and musical sides of you? Does one inform the other?
Absolutely. When we think about science and music, we often associate one with the left side of the brain and the other with the right side. Oftentimes that also means we view them as polarizing, as completely oppositional. Throughout my experiences and my journey, however, I came to realize that a lot of the skills I’ve learned in the sciences also inform how and why I create music. One example is the time I spent on investigative research. I apply a lot of fact-checking skills to my creative music when writing and composing a song. If I were to write about a certain topic, I want to make sure my historical, political, social, or cultural references are 100% accurate.
That goes back to what you were saying earlier about being intentional with your lyrics. It’s something that seems to be a constant theme throughout your work, like the fact you’re also the cofounder of a scholarship program—named Pinays Rising—aimed at giving young activists from the Philippines access to higher education. How does your commitment to social justice and climate justice inform your plans for your music career?
The last two years have seen so many changes—social, political, and in regards to climate change. There have also been renewed conversations [because of the pandemic] about science and people, and how many people don’t believe in science or don’t think it’s real. From my perspective, coming from a background in science, I think I have a responsibility to use my music and my platform to inform people about the climate crisis, about the role of science in better understanding and preventing it. I’ve always felt that music is accessible. It’s more digestible than people reading an article or book on climate change. That’s why I’m so focused on speaking about the ways in which we treat this world—because what we do now will affect the next generation.
Back in 2018, my band and myself, had the opportunity to speak with Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Philippines and cofounder of a Philippine online news website called Rappler famous for shining light on important social and political developments. During our conversation she told me that, Artists are just as, if not more, important than journalists. I remember being like, Wait What? This is coming from you? And so she elaborated, saying: What you guys are saying and what you are doing is capturing what’s going on in the world right now through your music; you guys are the storytellers. It’s really stayed with me. I think it’s a good example that illustrates the responsibility of the artist to be an artist of the times, and to ensure we are writing about what we are living. As long as we stay true and honest, we can be catalysts for change.