What’s On Your Ballot?: Ruby Ibarra, Rapper and COVID-19 Researcher

"What's at stake is everybody's lives. Everybody's safety," Ruby Ibarra says of the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Estefany Gonzalez)

In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.

Ruby Ibarra makes transcending boundaries seem normal: During the day, Ibarra works at a biotech company, joining researchers around the world in the fight for a COVID-19 vaccine. Outside her 9-to-5, she’s one of the fiercest rappers in the Bay Area. In the last few years, the Filipino-American artist has gained a following for her cutting lyrics, commanding rhythmic style and multilingual approach. (Ibarra often flows between English, Tagalog and Waray, a language native to Tacloban City, her hometown in the Philippines.)

Beyond her music, Ibarra is politically active on social media, encouraging her followers to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, support the Black Lives Matter movement and speak out against repression of civil liberties in the Philippines. For Ibarra, 2020 has illustrated just how intensely this country is riddled with divisions—divisions she hopes can be broken down as we move into November and beyond.—Eda Yu

As we head into the election, what do you make of the political climate in the United States today?

Especially for people in my generation, I hope that everyone’s been paying attention to what’s going on in this country—especially in terms of race relations and, more recently, how those in power are approaching this global pandemic. I hope those are factors people consider in this upcoming election.

I’m not here to sway anybody’s vote one way or the other. It’s more important to me that everybody goes out to the polls, submits mail-in ballots, and really makes their voice heard in this upcoming election. I see this as the most important election so far in my lifetime. This year has shown how divided this country can be, and I just hope that after the election, we can find more common ground as a nation. I understand that everybody has different beliefs, especially in a melting pot like America, but I do urge people to consider the effects of our votes in a long-term sense. Whatever candidate that you choose, I hope people think about how it’s going to affect everybody else—if it’s going to drive this country into a more positive space—and not to go at it in a selfish way.

It’s about the long-term, bigger picture consequences of what your actions are right now.

And I’m not here to say that a vote is going to fix all our problems. As we’ve seen with this current president, it can even mobilize and embolden certain communities in this country that were afraid to speak up before. I just want people to consider the long-term effects of their choices.

With COVID-19 and intense climate change, this year really highlighted our country’s lack of trust in science. What’s your take on that as a scientist?

Honestly, how people have approached this pandemic—with people being anti-maskers or even anti-vaxxers—it’s very frustrating for me. Having a background in science, growing up loving the sciences and seeing them as [describing] how the world works, to see this much distrust now confuses me. We need to remember that this isn’t about scientists dictating how we should operate. [Believing in COVID-19] is about public health safety and whether we’re going to be stuck in this pandemic for an additional year. This is a community effort.

We all play a part in this pandemic, and [how we behave] will determine how long we’re gonna be in this situation: how long we’re going to be in quarantine, how much longer death rates and infection rates increase. We saw a lot of people [this year] neglecting or dismissing a lot of Dr. Fauci’s comments around how to better protect ourselves. Over and over again, I’ll advise my followers to follow the guidelines set by the CDC. These guidelines were set in place for a reason, and wearing a mask, practicing social distancing—it’s like wearing a seatbelt. You don’t really have to do it. But at the end of the day, it is going to lower the rates of infection.

What is at stake if people don’t do their part to beat COVID-19?

What’s at stake is everybody’s lives. Everybody’s safety. Everybody’s freedom to gain any sense of normalcy again. If we continue down this route of people throwing these parties and everybody hanging out with their friends like it’s 2018, we’re really not gonna see much of an improvement. It saddens me when I turn on the news and I see that America is yet again the country with the highest infection and death rates.

Ruby Ibarra: 'As Asian Americans in this country, we've seen the effects of xenophobia from COVID-19 and Trump’s rhetoric when calling it the China virus.' (Estefany Gonzalez)

How do you think politics have affected the way we’ve handled COVID-19?

It’s unfortunate that politics have affected this [outbreak at all]. I honestly don’t know where a lot of this rhetoric came from—of people not only fearing science but also dismissing it or trying to [say] that [COVID-19] is a hoax or something made up to limit people’s freedoms. I don’t know how people are leading their daily lives who have this kind of mentality. But I would like to hope that everybody continues to stay informed and puts aside any biases, any political affiliations that we have, and takes the information that we get from scientists, doctors, the CDC as truths and guidelines to help us.

Has there been a lot of pressure at work to find a vaccine?

At the start of this pandemic around March, we did see a very steady incline in work at my job. At the end of March and beginning of April, my company started putting all hands on deck to help with the test kits. Now we’ve been working in collaboration with other companies and researchers in developing this vaccine.

I’m definitely not here to give out promises or deadlines—I know that people are waiting for the vaccine, and I can’t blame them because the thought is very alluring. But in reality, a vaccine takes a lot of time to develop. For other infectious diseases, it’s always taken not only several years but also multiple clinical trials. And now we’re in this rush to be the first researcher, the first country to come up with a vaccine.

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I don’t want us to be in that mindset of it being a race because we don’t know what the long-term effects of this initial vaccine will be, given the short span of time that we have to develop this. I also want people to recognize that it’s not just a vaccine that’s going to help us but everybody doing our part with social distancing and wearing masks. And I hope that this will also open the window to discussion where maybe we revisit how we approach these pandemics, especially seeing the disparity in the communities of color who have contracted COVID-19.

Ruby Ibarra: 'I think the question of who’s in office shouldn't determine the rhetoric that we use. How we treat other people. How we approach public health safety.' (Estefany Gonzalez)

As an Asian American, I know you’ve been passionate about raising awareness around what’s happening in the Philippines. Do you see parallels between what’s going on abroad and the social reckoning in the States today?

There are definitely a lot of parallels—even just with the people who hold power. Time and again people have compared [Filipino President Rodrigo] Duterte and Trump, and in terms of their leadership and their personality, I see the similarities. I’ve been following what’s going on with the terror law, and it’s scary. [Duterte introduced an anti-terrorism law in July that has drawn criticism from human rights groups globally.]

Being a Filipino in the diaspora, I know that in my community we often feel removed from what’s going on in the Philippines. But it’s important for us to recognize that what happens there still affects us. It’s really frightening to see that people’s freedom of speech and right to dissent are limited. These are very basic rights. So I hope that Filipinos living in America, who have a little more freedom, recognize this and stand up and are more vocal about it.

Do you feel that artists have a responsibility to use their platform or their work to speak up about social issues?

Absolutely. I’ve always felt that if I’m not using my platform to speak on things that I’m passionate about, or to speak on things for people who don’t have a voice, then I’m doing my platform a disservice.

As Asian Americans in this country, we’ve seen the effects of xenophobia from COVID-19 and Trump’s rhetoric when calling it the “China virus.” If Asian-American influencers and celebrities used their platforms to speak out against the injustices that our community faces, it would at the minimum open up discourse around it.

I’ve felt a lot of silence from the Asian American community around racial violence, and I think that bleeds into all social issues—Black Lives Matter is no different. We’ve started to see a change in the last couple months, but I hope that change persists.

I agree with you. I think the reason for the silence is probably obviously cultural factors: Being Asian American, a lot of us have this mentality to not speak out, keep our heads down and focus on our own lane. Hopefully with the xenophobia that our community has experienced, people do recognize that this discrimination happens to the Black community every single day, and that’s why things like Black Lives Matter exist. We need to build that solidarity with other communities.

Ruby Ibarra: 'I want to remind people that it's OK not to be busy. It's OK to be still. I think the silver lining that I've found in all of this is to be present with my family and friends.' (Estefany Gonzalez)

What are some ways you protect your mental health or keep from burning out?

I’m not gonna lie, I myself have had bouts of anxiety and depression this year. As a performer, I saw every single show that I had [scheduled] this year completely canceled. I’ve been cooped up in my studio, haven’t had too much engagement with friends or people that I usually would see on a daily basis. After that I saw this country evolve into a greater divide. We saw a lot of protests. And now with the upcoming elections, it’s been a very heavy year. It’s important for us to protect our mental health. For those who have been impacted by COVID-19 because of the effects of the pandemic on businesses—if you’ve lost your job, or if you’re now working from home but unable to see other people, just hang in there and remember that we’re all going through it at the same time.

This is all new territory—especially for artists out there who are so used to being busy. I want to remind people that it’s OK not to be busy. It’s OK to be still. I think the silver lining that I’ve found in all of this is to be present with my family and friends, whether I’m having those interactions through Zoom or being with my loved ones at home. I’m still very grateful for having those interactions compared to being impacted by the pandemic in terms of my health. So at this point, I think we just need to count our blessings. It’s also important for us to check in with our friends and family, even those that we think are OK, because this pandemic has affected all of us in different ways.

After the election—no matter how it goes—what are your hopes and goals for the country, and for the Bay Area?

I think the question of who’s in office shouldn’t determine the rhetoric that we use. How we treat other people. How we approach public health safety. At the end of the day, we need to stop looking at these political figures as the solution to our problem, and we need to stop looking at these political figures as celebrities. I just hope we find less of a divide in this country, post-election, and that we see a lot of empathy.

And politics aside, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere. And it’s really important for us to unite not just as a country but as a world. It’s important for us to celebrate our differences and to understand where people are coming from. I think there’s been a lack of empathy this year. I hope to see more of that.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Ruby Ibarra at her official website.

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