Meet Ruby Ibarra, the Fil-Am rapper who’s helping develop a COVID-19 vaccine

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Rapper Ruby Ibarra talks about the realities of a vaccine, the challenges of connecting to a virtual audience, and staying hopeful throughout the pandemic. Photo by DONNA IBARRA/Courtesy of RUBY IBARRA

Rizal (CNN Philippines Life) — “I’d just like to gently remind people that it’s important, especially during these times, to trust in the science.”

Rapper Ruby Ibarra stays diplomatic, but doesn’t mince her words when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bay Area-based musician is not only known for hard-hitting songs that tackle topics such as race, identity, and colonialism — she’s also part of a team that is trying to learn more about the virus that has halted the world for half a year.

Ibarra is part of a biotech company in California, and is specifically doing DNA testing related to COVID-19. As a scientist based in the US, Ibarra has had her fair share of frustrations with the coronavirus response: first, with the skepticism over public health guidelines, and the reliance on the development of a vaccine. “There are things that we don’t know about COVID-19, a lot of research still needs to be done,” Ibarra says. “But the best thing we can do is to act as a community, and act responsibly together.”

Community is something that Ibarra holds close, not just in her work as a scientist but in her music as well. She’s currently working on her second album, which she says is heavily influenced by the events that’s been going on in both the U.S. and the Philippines. Given that unverified news, false reports, and opinions as facts are the new norm, she says that staying informed is one thing — engaging in necessary discussions is to take it a step further. “It’s important to take it back to these exchanges and dialogues [with my communities] to make sure that everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s well-informed,” she says.

She adds, “It’s important to think critically, as much as we’re bombarded with the news, especially with social media being the main source of news for everybody, it’s very hard to filter through it, because a lot of it is mixed with opinions, and not necessarily facts.”


She’s limited to performing in front of a screen (performing live, she says, is her favorite part of being a musician) but she chooses to stay hopeful about what is to come. “I think we often forget to just drop everything and be present,” she says, as she remembers how in 2019, she was hardly able to stay home. “That’s what I’ve learned to do this year, and that’s what gives me hope.”

In a video call with CNN Philippines Life, the rapper talks about the realities of a vaccine, the challenges of connecting to a virtual audience, and staying hopeful throughout the pandemic. The interview has been condensed for clarity.

How are you doing?

I’m doing fine. You know, just like everybody else, just waiting for the year to end pretty much. (Laughs) How’s everything in the Philippines?

It’s okay. We’re all trying to get by. I’m sure that you’ve kind of heard that we still have an ongoing lockdown, and the rules change all the time. So that’s kind of the situation there. But I know in the U.S., the coronavirus response isn’t as strong either. How is it going there, especially in your community?

So I live in California, specifically the Bay Area. Thankfully, the response, from where I live, is that people are following the guidelines that’s been set by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). But then I’m sure as you may know, as we’ve seen on headlines, there are people here in the States that are against wearing masks and do question these guidelines that have been set. It’s unfortunate that people do question [these rules] when it’s ultimately it’s about public health safety, and it shouldn’t be about politics. But that’s the reality. I’m just hoping that as the coming months pass by, people will become more cognizant of the importance of staying safe.

Given your line of work, is there any particular frustration from you, given this response? In a way, this is also reflective of people’s perception of work in science and medicine.

My specific frustrations that come with this recent pandemic, is that I feel like people — especially within my generation — tend to question the reality or the existence of this virus. I’d just like to gently remind people that it’s important, especially during these times, to trust in the science. Obviously, there are things that we don’t know about COVID-19, a lot of research still needs to be done. But the best thing we can do is to act as a community, and act responsibly together. If people don’t play their part in social distancing, or wearing masks, I’m afraid we might be in this new reality for longer than we think.

As someone who works in both music and science, can you share with us what your typical day is like now? How is it different from before?

So a typical day at work right now is when I go to work in my lab, I’m fully gowned in my PPE. I have the safety goggles, I have the lab coat, I have the mask… I do molecular diagnostics, which is pretty much DNA testing. I run these samples of DNA. Of course, given the time that we’re in, and the nature of my work currently, we’re heavily focused on research on COVID-19 right now. Since March, we’ve been hands-on across our entire site, having people be more on deck with the COVID-19 test kits. More recently, we’ve been doing a lot of projects and work towards the development of a vaccine.

But I’d just like to share that in the past, when they’ve released vaccines, especially those vaccines that have a concrete efficacy, it does take time and research. And obviously with COVID-19 being something that people have just taken notice of at the end of 2019 pretty much — it hasn’t even been a full year yet — we’re still very much in the early stages. Things like this usually take time, so the reality is that it’s gonna take a longer time to come out with a vaccine and with a plan that can ensure that we can go back to normal again.

In the Philippines, the current public health policy is focused on the development of a vaccine, and their timelines pin it sometime next year. Russia just announced that they’ve developed a vaccine. From a scientific perspective, what would you have to say about that?

From a scientific perspective, as much as a vaccine sounds like the end-all-cure-all solution, at the end of the day, I’d like to just remind everybody that as much as this dream of a vaccine washing away everything that’s happened in 2020 would be great, that’s really not the reality of it. We need to remember that it’s not just gonna take a vaccine to lower a lot of the numbers and the cases. It’s also gonna take social distancing and wearing masks, and the safe practice of washing hands and taking these extra precautions. Like I said, it’s really going to take a while before we have a vaccine that’s very effective. Even with people promising or stating certain dates, it really comes down to the efficacy. With the initial release of a vaccine, we wouldn’t know what the efficacy would be like. And again, there’s still a lot of things that we don’t know about COVID-19. We don’t know the long-term effects, specific details of the virus. Again, that comes with time and research.


I’ve read in an interview you’ve done that your next album will be partly inspired by what’s happening right now. Could you share with us what the music-making process is for you now?

As we all know, the pandemic has affected everybody, all of the businesses across the table. But one industry in particular that’s definitely been affected has been the entertainment industry and the arts. Specifically speaking as a musician, in the last five months, live shows just aren’t possible anymore. So we’ve all had to adjust and kind of pivot. Thankfully there are platforms like Zoom and Twitch where artists like myself are still able to perform, get our music out there, and connect with our audiences.

When it comes to working on my next album, it’s definitely not lost on me that I need to be an artist of the times, and make sure that what I’m experiencing, both in the past and in the present, are reflected in my lyrics. And so I see a lot of these elements of the pandemic that permeate in the music that I’ve been writing, such as topics that explore love or loss, and especially the social and political issues that have been ongoing this year — those are definitely going to be reflected in my songs as well.

How has it been performing live, but virtually?

It’s been challenging, because I’m the type of artist that, as much as I love to write and I love to be in the studio recording, my number one passion when it comes to this craft is connecting with people when I’m onstage.

I always think back to when I went to the Philippines last year, I traveled with my band. It was our first time ever going to Manila together, we got to perform at Malasimbo Festival and Saguijo, which I heard is a legendary venue. Having that interaction when you’re performing these songs live, it’s a different dynamic because you get to a.) [perform] the songs differently than how it sounds on the album, and b.) you get to see, face to face, the reactions of the people who listen to your music and see how it’s translated to them and how it makes them feel.

Nothing compares to obviously that live interaction. That’s truly what I miss this year. But like I mentioned, the best thing that we can do is adjust, given the times that we’re in. And honestly, I feel like the livestream component isn’t gonna go away anytime soon. I feel like it will somehow be integrated once live shows start up again. That’ll be interesting to see. I think we’re about to see the music and the television industries make some shifts along the way.

What are you listening to right now?

I haven’t been asked that in a while! Even though there haven't been a lot of releases this year, I tell people all the time, I’m a fan before I’m a musician. I’ve been listening to the new Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion song. I also heavily support a lot of the artists in the Philippines, artists like Loonie, Alex Bruce, Shanti Dope, Abra, BLKD… those are all amazing artists that I support 100 percent. I’m just really excited to see Philippine hip-hop to continue to develop and grow. I think that the community there is in a really good place right now, and there are a lot of artists who are helping drive the culture forward.