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Island Women Rise: The Triumphs and Struggles of Filipino-American Artists
A conversation with Ruby Ibarra, Klassy, Faith Santilla and Rocky Rivera.

Filipino-American artists Ruby Ibarra, Klassy, Faith Santilla and Rocky Rivera debuted their collaborative track “US” back in 2017 as part of Ruby’s Circa91 album. Directed by Ruby herself, the song’s music video features Pinays (a colloquial term for Filipina) of different ages and body types dressed in traditional Filipiñianas as well as their modern-day attire. The visual celebrates individuality and unique stories, while also highlights the sense of togetherness among Filipinas, who are seen chanting the mantra “Island woman rise.”

Since its release, “US” has received a tremendous amount of recognition — the song embodies the importance of sisterhood, challenges stereotypes about women being submissive, and honors the Philippines‘ ongoing legacy of resistance and survival. With its unapologetic lyrics, which effortlessly transitions from Tagalog to English, the track has become an empowering anthem for Filipino women across the globe.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we sat down with hip hop artists Ruby, Klassy and Rocky, as well as spoken word poet Faith, to talk about their struggles and triumphs as women of color in the American music industry. Read our conversation below to learn more about the origins of “US,” as well as each artist’s creative journey.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up in the U.S.? How did you handle the culture shock?

Ruby: My family and I moved to the U.S. in the ’90s. My father petitioned my mom, my sister and me, and it was certainly a big culture shock when we arrived because up until that point, I had only seen and lived in the Philippines. After only several weeks of living here, I immediately started kindergarten and I remembered seeing people from different backgrounds for the first time. I was a very shy kid because it was a very fast transition period. I was trying to absorb everything all at once — from adjusting to my new surroundings, to missing my family and friends back in Tacloban City, Philippines.

Klassy: I was born in San Pedro Laguna, Philippines and migrated to the U.S. when I was three years old. I was raised in Echo Park, Los Angeles and the neighborhood was predominantly Latino/Hispanic and Filipino (before the gentrification started). A big part of me was exposed to the Western culture, but at home, my mom cooked Filipino food for every meal of the day and our TV was on only three channels: TFC, GMA and some Filipino podcasts. I spoke fluent Tagalog up until I started going to school.

Today, I can understand Tagalog very well. I just can’t speak it as great as when I was little. I love learning about my ancestors and hearing about all the stories of resilience and power that led to my very existence. I connect to my Filipino roots through practicing the knowledge of self, and showing my pride in who I am and where I come from through my music, conversations and all things that I create.

Rocky: I was born at the Clark Air Force Base in Angeles City, Philippines. My dad was in the Navy and we immigrated to the U.S. when I was four years old. I always talk about being the youngest of three girls because immigration affected us generationally. My older sisters struggled with assimilation more and I watched how the culture shock affected us differently. Hip hop was the only thing that gave us a sense of American culture, joy and belonging.

Faith, being born and raised in the U.S., how were you able to connect to your Filipino roots?

Faith: My dad was a Philippine World War II veteran and was active in the anti-martial law movement. He never hesitated to share with me the injustice that’s been imposed on the Filipino people, and he always emphasized the fights our people have waged for dignity and self-determination. My mom grew up very poor. She was the only one that went to college, so she was the breadwinner of her family when she moved to America. While I grew up here, the Philippines was something that was never forgotten. The political and economic climate of our country was always discussed in my household growing up.

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You share a collaborative track titled “US” that touches upon female empowerment and the immigrant’s struggle, what were your initial intentions when you composed the lyrics of the song?

Ruby: I wanted to create a song that would celebrate sisterhood. Growing up in a traditional Filipino household, I recognized early on how patriarchal our community was. Once I fell in love with hip hop, I also saw how male-dominated and machismo this genre was, and ultimately, how women are often pitted against each other. With a song like “US,” I truly wanted to capture the importance of sisterhood, as well as the power of our voices.

Klassy: I wrote my verse in Tagalog and English because certain words feel a different way when they’re said in another language. I spoke about blood, decapitation and how even if you had a rosary, who will be your savior? It gets real dark. My initial intentions when I wrote my verse was honestly just to paint a gritty picture of how Filipinas are not to be f*cked with, as well as decolonization. Women are always expected to be soft and obedient, and I wanted my verse to be the total opposite of that. I think I nailed it.

Faith: My hope for the song was to create something that spoke directly to Filipinas. A reminder that if you feel like the world doesn’t see you, we do. Lastly, I wanted it to serve as a reminder that we come from a long history of struggle that we should be proud of and continue.

Rocky: Guerilla warfare is a common theme in my music, something that was utilized by Filipino guerrillas during World War II against invading colonizers. They called the Filipino-American War the “First Vietnam” because of how these tactics were used successfully against the Spanish. My first song, “Married to the Hustle,” was written from a soldier’s perspective. 10 years later, my verse on “US” was written by that same soldier, but from a general’s point of view. I actually don’t talk about female empowerment or immigration at all. I’m giving directives to my soldiers on where to point the weapon and how to organize the masses to take our land back. There were many women generals in our history and I am carrying that tradition through my verse.

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As women of color in the hip hop music scene, how do you tackle unfortunate moments of discrimination, racism and sexism?

Ruby: As a woman of color in hip hop, I definitely make it a point to use my lyrics to highlight topics such as racism and sexism. I understand that hip hop initially started as a platform for the oppressed and underrepresented, so it is important for me that I continue to respect and treat it as such. I also recognize that I am a non-black woman of color participating in this genre, so I am also mindful of the space I take up. It’s vital for me that when I have the opportunity to curate events, music videos or songs, I need to make sure that brown and black women of color are highlighted and pushed to the forefront.

Klassy: I’m working on not taking things personally. I understand that when someone says something against my race, sex, etc., it’s a reflection of what’s inside of them. I don’t have to accept what they say because I know it’s not true. If someone gives me hate, I will turn it into something great and put it in on my next album. I tackle it through music. I don’t waste my energy, baby. I recycle it.

Faith: Vibrate higher than the nonsense. Study, write and perform about injustice and practice being so undeniably dope, and articulate that people will fear to challenge you on such topics.

Rocky: I work harder than the next male artist or white artist because “doing it for the culture” isn’t enough anymore. We have to be in control of our own narrative. People love talking about diversity but only want to fill a bare-minimum aesthetic. At the end of the day, real diversity is inclusivity. The bigger issue isn’t overt racism or sexism, but more passive or covert forms like micro-aggressions, or billing us at a wack time at a festival. People can just feign ignorance when you do call them out, but we pay attention to who supports and who doesn’t.

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When did you decide to use rap as one of your main outlets to address the issues related to being immigrants?

Ruby: I don’t think I ever consciously made the decision that I would use rap to talk about my immigrant experience. It just came organically when I was writing my debut album and knew that I had to write a story that was true to me and my life. After the release of CIRCA91 was when I truly realized how important it is for immigrants to share their stories, especially at this given time in this country. When I think about America, or rather, American history, I think that these textbooks [don't always tell the stories of] women and people of color. I would like to think that through rap, we are claiming our names and re-writing history on our own terms. If we don’t write about us, who will?

Klassy: Music is my main outlet. If I’m feeling down, ecstatic, insecure, confident, I will write about it. If the boy from eighth grade cheated on me, my 15-year-old self would write a rap about it. I’ve made music about everything for as long as I can remember. My music is literally my identity in the form of sound. I choose to write about political, social, controversial issues because it’s what I’m surrounded by. Many times it’s what my people, my tribe and what I have to live through. If you have a voice, why not use it?

Faith:  I’m a poet but what I can say is that hip hop raised me — it’s what encouraged me to write poetry. However, I started out as a community organizer. At the time, we weren’t drawing in young people to our events and meetings. That said, I started to perform, as well as recruit rappers to perform at our events because I saw art as a tool to organize the youth, to literally get them in the door. Also, I think the most successful movements in the world know the power of art. Art has a way of interpreting very complex concepts (capitalism, economic inequity, etc.), so that regular people can be informed, and engage in change and movement building.

Rocky: My music is the intersection of learning about my own history when I was in college as a Filipino-American, and growing into a writer and performance artist. Ethnic studies actually gave my writing a focus. I’m grateful I found a purpose early in my career.

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The track’s hook goes “Island woman rise, walang makakatigil (nothing can stop you), Brown, brown woman, rise, alamin ang yung ugat (know your roots).” How do you interpret these powerful phrases and how do these lines resonate with you as a Filipino-American?

Ruby: Up until this day, the hook of “US” still makes me feel powerful. Ultimately, that was our goal — to create a song that would not only embody sisterhood and community, but also create lyrics that could help amplify the voices of those who feel like they don’t have a voice.

Klassy: I felt so honored when Ruby asked me to write the hook to this song and I just knew I wanted to embody the topic of Pinay-ism and empowerment. Growing up, I never had a lot of Filipino-American role models. I had a difficult time answering what being Filipino meant to me since I was raised in Los Angeles. To me, these lyrics mean that whether you were born in America, or in the Philippines, or if you can speak Tagalog or not, and all the factors that come with the struggle of our Filipino identities, we are all one. It’s about Pinay-ism solidarity. We are all tied together from our roots.

Rocky: The hook is powerful for Pinays, especially because we needed a narrative to be proud of and one that wasn’t shaped by colonialism, fetishism or Western beauty standards. So much of what it means to be Pinay is to be “of service” to others at home, with guests and even abroad, as your overseas domestic workers. This song is the militant reverse of that: we are not your fetish, your little brown sisters or your lowly servants. In fact, once we are armed with the knowledge of our pre-colonial history, we should be considered a deadly weapon.

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Do you have any advice for young Asian-American creatives who are trying to make it into the industry?

Ruby: My advice for young Asian-American artists trying to make it into the music industry is to be authentic. Use your voice to tell your story, but also use your platform responsibly to stand in solidarity and uplift other communities of color. I would also tell them to never compromise your sound or image. We are fortunate to be in a time where we can release music and content on our own terms, so it’s important that we are also smart with the deals and decisions we make.

Klassy: Don’t take your parents’ advice and find a career in the medical field if that’s not what you want. Realize life’s too short to compromise your passion for working a nine-to-five desk job all your life for a boring company. Is it really stable if they can replace you at any moment? Don’t half-ass your pursuit of happiness. Figure out how to get multiple streams of income by having side hustles. There’s not a lot of Asian-Americans like you in mainstream media. Your face and talent might just be the thing that breaks typical stereotypes and opens more doors for your people to have bigger opportunities. Be fearless and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Be authentic as f*ck. Most importantly, just have fun. If you truly love what you do, it shouldn’t have to feel like work. The world is literally your playground and you can manifest anything you want.

Faith: Be your most authentic self. Create art that no one can deny is exclusively yours. Even if you’re nervous, act like you mean everything you say. All artists want others to believe in their work, so if you want people to believe you, you better speak and perform as you believe in yourself.

Rocky: Be you. So much of hip hop is a performative formula. You don’t need to follow it, just be yourself. If you insist on borrowing Black culture for the aesthetic, read up on how you can be a better ally to Black lives — that and hip hop should go hand in hand.

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