Celebrating heritage is the combatant of such turbulent times — when the authorities are called on an ordinary, everyday barbecue, the community comes together. The world today, in this chaos, needs balance.
For nearly 40 years, CAAMFest has been a stalwart in shining light on narratives and documentaries from across the Asian diaspora, from Manila to Hong Kong to New York City, inner cities to the country, high-end restaurants to grocery stores.
Naturally, CAAMFest offers the megaphone to many voices and to lead up to the festival’s premier Directions in Sound showcase. We hand the mic to Lyrics Born and Ruby Ibarra, who share the bill with rising spoken-word artist and MC, G Yamazawa.
As two dynamic and bold voices in hip-hop, Lyrics Born and Ruby Ibarra (whose behind-the-scenes documentary on her “Us” music video debuts at CAAMFest) are just a sampling the musical flavors featured in CAAMFest’s handful of live performances (including a mini-festival at The Midway featuring Yuna, P-Lo and Year of the Ox).
Lyrics Born’s 10th album, “Quite a Life,” (scheduled for release this September) marks his 20-plus years as a hip-hop veteran. Known for his Bay Area golden-era sound, Lyrics Born carries a verbal arsenal capable of delivering wisdom and assaults in the same bar. Ruby Ibarra isn’t new to rap either, starting off as a spoken-word artist before committing fully to being an MC. Her first full album “Circa91” debuted this year. Coming from different eras and generations, the two MCs touch on the differences and similarities they experienced coming up in the rap ranks and why now, more than ever, is the moment to push the movement forward for representation.
The Bay Bridged: First off, you both represent different generations of hip-hop. Lyrics Born, how does it feel to be the OG for this show and Ruby, what is like to be included at this pivotal time in your career?
Lyrics Born: It’s fantastic. The skill and talent level is huge. There’s power in numbers, the more the merrier. It’s really important to me that everyone succeeds. I feel like whatever I can do in service to this community, our community, in service to these other artists — whatever I have that I can offer, whether it’s my talent or experience or my artistry, whatever stage I can share — I’m willing to do that because I know how much we need it.
Ruby Ibarra: It’s definitely been such an honor. I’ve been listening to Lyrics Born for years, back when I was still in school. I think right now we’re at a time where we’re seeing not just Asian American artists (we’ve seen them throughout the years on internet platforms like YouTube), I think we’re kind of noticing a shift where networks and those in higher-up positions are seeing that these artists do have an audience and are marketable.
TBB: Within music, and hip-hop especially, a lot of Asian artists try to separate their ethnicity from their work. Is this something you both experienced? LB, your name used to be Asia Born, but you changed it because of that.
LB: Back then — we’re talking 1993, 1994 — there was nobody. It was just me. I became the focal point of the press and I just really felt like they were so behind in how to relate and treat us because there were just so few of us in pop culture. And so, every single article they wrote was like, “Oh, he’s pretty good for an Asian rapper,” or “he’s not bad for an Asian guy.” It was relentless. On the one hand, it was awesome because Asians need to see this, they need to see that we are out here doing this; We need see to ourselves. But on the other hand, it felt like an assault.
RI: Yeah, definitely. To be honest, when I was first starting out with my first project (released in 2012) at that point in my career my main focus was establishing myself as an MC, showing the skills I wanted to bring to the table and not necessarily my story and who I was and where I came from.
TBB: How do you balance not being pigeonholed, but also still representing for the culture? Do you feel you have to do that less now?
LB: I was talking to the Far East Movement guys about 15 years ago and I said, ‘You guys realize that if we decided if we wanted to take a break or if we decided that we were going to allow ourselves to have a hiatus, there would be zero presence.’ That’s how it was back then. Thankfully it’s not that way anymore and I just knew, I just had this feeling like, after the first 10 years, I had this feeling that I was rounding the bases for other men and women to come behind me. It started to feel like slowly but surely we have a movement. And I want to make sure I’m still around to see it come to fruition.
I’m even more inspired and fueled by this other sense that what we’re doing is historic right now and what you’re seeing and what’s bubbling right now is something I’ve been waiting for my entire life and what a lot of us have been waiting for our entire lives. That, I would say, is something that also motivates me.
RI: I think as Asian-American hip-hop artists, we become afraid of being that token Asian and falling into stereotypes or boxed in a certain way. Now, I feel like as long as I’m talking about my stories and experiences, and what’s honest to me, I don’t necessarily feel that’s a dilemma I’m going to end up facing. If anything, to share where I’m from is to share who I am and that’s just going to open up people’s eyes and making people aware of the experiences not only I went through, but what my parents went through as well.
TBB: What do you think has changed?
LB: All I can say is thank God for social media. For the first half of my career I was pretty dependent on “the machine” and the powers that be for exposure. Now, we expose ourselves. I have to believe that social media has also accelerated the movement because you can’t ignore anyone’s presence anymore. Any movement that was perceived as countercultural or outside of the mainstream, social media has given all these movements a voice and you can’t ignore the numbers anymore.
TBB: Under the example of Lyrics Born, Far East Movement, the Filipino DJ culture, it feels like we’ve done just enough to survive, to claim our place within the culture. What needs to happen in this new generation for us thrive?
LB: We need more people that can green-light projects on a major level. We need people behind the desk. Obviously we need more people that are artists that feel confidence and secure enough that they can survive and thrive as artists. But concurrently, we need to put ourselves in positions where we can green-light projects on a large scale so that we can have more Ali Wongs, Fresh Off the Boats, Eddie Huangs, books from people like Jeff Chang and can sign artists like Dumbfoundead to major labels. Just more people of power that can put us in positions where the mainstream has access to us and vice versa.
RI: I think in order for us to thrive we need to come out with more honest and real content. When I say real content, I mean portrayals and real representations of ourselves that the average Asian-American or Filipino-American can relate to. I think the way we’re represented in the media is still very one dimensional, still very stereotypical and I think it’s really a matter of continuing to write and shoot stories that are about very real men and women that not only our community can relate to, but if we’re able to find something universal that other people can tap into and relate to as well.
For more information on CAAMFest’s music and live performances, click here.
Directions in Sound with Lyrics Born, Ruby Ibarra, G Yamazawa
Starline Social Club
May 18, 2018