Meet the Bay Area rapper working on a COVID vaccine

Ruby Ibarra is almost a modern-day Hannah Montana. By day, she’s a scientist at a Bay Area biotech company, working in the quality-control department on COVID-19 test kits and yes, even a vaccine. But by night, she’s an up-and-coming hip-hop artist, performing sold-out shows with her band of eight, the Balikbayans (well, at least she used to in the Before Times; now all her performances take place online). Unlike Miley Cyrus’ sneakily wig-swapping character, however, she hasn’t kept her double life a secret.

“At first, I tried not to make it a point … but because of some opportunities that I’ve been fortunate to be part of, like a commercial or some TV interviews, coworkers would randomly find it on TV,” said Ibarra over the phone from her home in Hayward, where she is sheltering in place with her fiancĂ©. “They’d be like, ‘Wait, is that you?’ and tell other people.”

For her, hip-hop and science have always been simultaneous. She’s been rapping since age 13, but knowing the financial reality of the music industry, she wanted a stable career to fall back. Plus, she actually likes her day job: “Outside of music, I've always been interested in science, because it pretty much explains how the world works,” she said.

While her coworkers have been supportive, even purchasing her last album, “Circa91,” when it dropped in 2017, many fans have remained unaware of her career in science. Recently, she took to Twitter to talk about it in an attempt to educate her followers about the pandemic.

“... during this pandemic, I’ve been paranoid af. I wear a mask, gloves, and spray down everything at work with bleach and alcohol … ,” Ibarra shared on Twitter. “It really annoys me to know that folks still takin this sh–t lightly or don’t believe the virus is real or don’t wear masks. If you get sick, even if ur asymptomatic — IT AFFECTS OTHERS. Stop opening businesses and schools! This s–t is real.”

Ruby Ibarra is currently working on her sophomore album, which is due to release later in 2020.

Ruby Ibarra is currently working on her sophomore album, which is due to release later in 2020.

Courtesy of Ruby Ibarra

Being so close to the virus and other people at her job, Ibarra takes safety measures extremely seriously.

“When I get home from work, I usually go straight to the bathroom, put all the clothes that I wore to work in a bag, and then I take a shower,” she explained. “I pretty much have to do the laundry multiple times throughout the week.”

When I ask Ibarra how she really feels when she sees people not wearing masks or social distancing, she takes a deep breath and laughs a little.

“I'll try to say this in a more calm way, and not be my usual pissed self about it,” she said. “But it really is upsetting and alarming whenever I go out in public and I see people without masks.”

As someone with nearly 50,000 Instagram followers, Ibarra feels a responsibility to speak out on topics where she might have an influence — not just about taking the pandemic seriously, but social justice issues. Recently on social media, Ibarra has been outspoken about the Black Lives Matter movement, and recent political and social developments happening in the Philippines, where she was born.

Topics like these find their way into her music, too. On '90s hip-hop-inspired “Circa91” (whose title refers to the year her family moved to America), she addresses topics including the patriarchy, colorism in the Philippines and the challenges her parents faced as new immigrants. With sharp lyricism and rhythmic, multisyllabic flow, she switches effortlessly between rapping in English, Tagalog, and Waray, a dialect native to her hometown.

Ruby Ibarra has been outspoken about social justice issues - both those happening here in America and back in the Philippines - on social media and in her music.

Ruby Ibarra has been outspoken about social justice issues — both those happening here in America and back in the Philippines — on social media and in her music.

Donna Ibarra

“I’ve always been a firm believer in that if you have a platform, you should definitely use it to your advantage and make sure that you're speaking for the people who feel like they don't have a voice,” said Ibarra. “Seeing how police brutality and racial inequality in general still continues to thrive, especially in this country, that's alerted me to recognize that these are all still very important things to talk about in my music ... If I can be an artist that can help start the dialogue for these conversations, I’m more than willing to take that on.”

While quarantining, Ibarra is working on her sophomore album (which is definitely influenced by this year’s social issues), convening with her band members over Zoom and swapping home studio-recorded demos. Whether she’s composing rap verses, decked out in full PPE at the laboratory, binging anime on Netflix, or pining for Korean barbecue, a memory of one of the last shows before shelter in place helps her soldier on. She and her band performed back-to-back, sold-out shows at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles back in February.

“Being able to be in a space as big as the Getty Museum with people that I admire and adore, like my band, and being able to perform our hearts out with the music that we love … ,” she said, reminiscing. “It's definitely going to be something I'll remember forever, and something I'll keep reflecting back on throughout this year just to keep me going.”

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