The Rap and Activism of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

The 18-year-old hip hop artist hopes to be a force of positive change.


The day before his 18th birthday this past May, Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced shoe-tez-caht) Martinez flew home to Colorado from Los Angeles, where he had been working on his latest hip-hop album. He wanted nothing more than to pause, to spend time with family and friends, to meditate, to set intentions and goals or his next trip around the sun. It had been a crazy year: touring and performing; releasing his book We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement That Restores the Planet; appearing on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Comedy Central; releasing his single, “Young” featuring rapper Nahko and actress Shailene Woodley. Not to mention he’s participating in an ongoing lawsuit against the Trump administration, suing the government for supporting industries whose work contributes to the climate change crisis. Perhaps understandably, the teenager needed some serious R&R.

. Last night at our show in Birmingham, there was a beautiful girl at the very front of the crowd singing the lyrics to my songs with a look in her eyes that moved me so deeply. She was a complete stranger to me but I felt the passion and love I’d poured into these songs reflecting off her eyes with every lyric we spoke together. It was unlike anything I’ve felt. When I’m on that stage, everything is an energetic exchange. A push and pull with the audience. I’m learning that getting onto that stage pulls people along with me on the journey the music has taken me on. Every city, every show, every night filled with new sparks of falling in love with playing music, falling in love with reaching peoples hearts and making people move. Thank you to everyone who’s been a part of this journey with me. This music and these stories are everything to me, and sharing a part of who I am with the world is one of the greatest gift I’ve experienced. To many more moons of sharing medicine and magic through this music ✨? pc: @josue_foto

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Martinez has been an environmental activist since age six and a songwriter since the age of seven. At 15, he addressed the UN General Assembly. Praised by the likes of Chance the Rapper, Leonardo DiCaprio, and James Cameron, he is also the Youth Director for Earth Guardians, a non-profit dedicated to inspiring young people to activate their voices in response to climate change.

He is also one of 21 young people who in 2015 began suing the government under the Obama administration for failing to act on climate change in Juliana vs. the United States, a suit that both the federal government and fossil fuel industry tried to have thrown out but failedtwo judges reviewed their motions to dismiss and said Martinez and co. do have the right to take the case to trial. Charging that the government is denying them their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the group hopes the courts will force the government to institute climate recovery plans developed by leading climate scientists, thereby reducing the country’s enormous release of greenhouse gases to a much safer level and making the country’s environment safer for forthcoming generations.

And if that wasn’t enough, later this summer Martinez will be releasing his first album, Break Free.

Martinez has always seen his music as a platform to make positive change. “The thing about art is…it’s a really powerful tool in continuing talking about issues and messages and movements,” he says. “For example, Kendrick [Lamar], when he talks about a social issue, that reaches millions and millions of people around the world. Continuing to build that platform as an artist amplifies the impact that I have as an activist, and vice versa.”

Much of Martinez’s activism and music has been influenced by his parents. His mother is an environmental activist herself, and his father is from Mexico, of the Meshika tribe. On the new album, Martinez raps in Spanish and Nahuatl, the language of the tribe, to honor his roots and represent his community while taking on issues of cultural identity and indigenous authenticity. “Part of the reason I’ve been successful doing what I do is because of the authenticity and the realness of my story and my message and how I choose to present myself to the world,” Martinez says. “Compromising that is very dangerous.”

. ‘Til the whole world can say my name ⚔️ #caliroots2018 Foto: @josue_foto

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In accordance with his commitment to honoring the stories of his life, Martinez cites not just Lamar as an influence, but also Talib Kweli, Mos Def, KRS-One, J.Cole, Logic, and Joey BadA$$. These are artists he sees telling important stories and addressing significant issues in their communities, much like Martinez hopes to do. On his own forthcoming record, Martinez will take on challenges he has seen young people around him face like anxiety, depression, poverty, self-harm, and indigenous oppression. “The popularity aspect of what’s cool to rap about is definitely the limiting factor for a lot of artists….The image of wealth in hip hop is still built around money and cars and drugs and glorifying all these things that are often quite superficial. For me to see that was kind of always a difficult thing growing up,” he says. “People can’t all relate about having lots of cars in their garage and stacks of money,” he continues. “I wanted to always be an artist that had a positive impact on the world and on young people as well, helping youth find their way.”

On his new single, “Young,” Martinez sought to tell his story and the story of what it means to be young in the world today, he says, also highlighting voices of people whose stories often go unheard. He met Woodley, whose voice shares poetry on the track, at an event supporting a reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Rapper Nahko, who is also indigenous, recorded the song’s hook and verse, and Martinez will be joining him and on an 11-date tour this year beginning August 1.

As Martinez’s careers as both a musician and an activist continue to grow, he finds the experience of living in both worlds at the same time not just a positive one but a possible one. “Putting out singles and seeing the response that people have and people aren’t just like ‘Whoa, that’s a good message,’ people are beginning to recognize like, ‘Damn, that’s a good song, that was produced well, the vocals are done well, yes, he can flow,’” Martinez says. He feels recognized as both an artist and an activist. Yet it can’t be easy to have the world’s eyes on you in such a way as you age into your chosen spaces, as you navigate not just music and advocacy, but growing up. Martinez feels at times the expectation on him is heavy, difficult, and limiting. What allows him to move past those feelings, however, is music, which gave him a space to discuss and navigate his experiences.

At the same time, Martinez knows that as time goes on his audience’s experience of him may change because, of course, as we age our opinions take on more defined shapes. “I think the process of growing up and becoming an adult and seeing my vision more clearly as an artist is going to push some people away,” he says. “That’s fine, I feel like people that are supporters or followers who aren’t gonna grow with you aren’t people that you wanna have in your corner.”

Even so, he says, the label of activist is as important if you don’t use your skill sets to advocate for your cause. “It’s not about labeling yourself as an activist, it’s about playing your part as a musician, as actors and actresses, as models, or whatever world we’re connected to,” he says. “We all have an important roles to play in telling these stories. It’s just about finding our way to impact the world.”

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