In 2015, Hip Hop artist and environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez pronounced ‘shoo-TEHZ-caht’) joined 20 other young people in suing the federal government over its inaction on climate change. Going into its third year, the lawsuit has gained national attention and will have the group of passionate young people facing off with the Trump administration in the fall. Regardless of whether or not the lawsuit succeeds, the indigenous activist has undoubtedly had an impressive amount of success in raising awareness.
At the age of 18, the indigenous rapper already addressed the UN General Assembly, been interviewed by Bill Maher, featured on Rolling Stone’s “25 Under 25,” published a book, and helped out on former President Obama’s Youth Council. Now, Martinez hopes to extend this energy into Hip Hop with the release of his new single “Young” featuring Nahko and Shailene Woodley. HipHopDX spoke with Martinez about his new single, why Hip Hop is a great medium for social justice, and how activists can use music to promote their causes.
HipHopDX: What’s the story behind your new single “Young?” How did you link up with Shailene Woodley?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: Shailene has been my friend for a minute now. Nahko, the artist who is also featured on the track, dated Shay for a minute. They were really close friends and I met them together. They came together to the Black Hills of South Dakota on a reservation to do a free benefit festival to support the reservation there and respect the sovereignty of the land. So I met Shay there and she was in a music video that we shot out there when I was fourteen or fifteen. We totally connected. Amidst being a Hollywood actress, she also has the most beautiful and grounded mind and vision and wanting to do good and helping people and inspiring people. She’s been a representative and ally in a lot of important movements. What she did in Standing Rock to bring more attention to it is very admirable. She’s just a homie; we became homies real quick. We are always figuring out more ways to get involved with each other’s work and uplift the message. “Young” was a really important issue and the state of youth in the world. Looking at my friends and the people in my community that I love and care about and things that I have gone through personally and looking at how these issues of depression, suicide, self-harm, and substance abuse aren’t really talked about in Hip Hop often and how for me it was a raw and very real reflection of what people I love have been through and bringing that to the attention of the world, through this perspective of empowerment and making it relatable so people can break free and connect with that story.
I knew that Shay resonated with that message because we’ve had conversations a lot. So I sent her the track after our boy Nahko recorded the hook and the verse and she fell in love with the message and the idea and she sent me a couple different ideas for poems and we chopped it up and put it in the end and have it as a culmination of planting seeds to have people get involved. She has a young audience because she’s a Hollywood actress that’s done all these films so it was really important for her voice to be part of the project and be grateful for that.
HipHopDX: How did you first get involved with activism?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: My mom had been really involved in environmental activism. I grew up in a household really involved with that. My dad is indigenous and from Mexico City. Our ancestors are the Meshika people. My engagement with my personal identity was an important part of my activism. I was six when I first started speaking about environmental justice and indigenous rights and all these different kinds of issues. I surrounded myself with knowledge from a very young age about what was happening in the world and the place and the part I had to play in all of it. It was definitely due to my upbringing and my way of growing up being very connected to my culture and the world outside. I learned a lot about my personal responsibility to play a part in helping make a difference.
HipHopDX: Can you tell us about your lawsuit against the federal government?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: In 2015, myself and twenty other people sued the federal government for violating our constitutional rights for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” for their failure to act on the impact of our climate crisis and for the negligence and failure to represent the people and working directly with the fossil fuel corporations [while] knowing that they are the ones creating this crisis. They [the federal government] offer everything from subsidies to sanction exploitation on federal land. Really, we are calling out the politicians for failing to do their part to protect our generation and our rights. We filed that in 2015 and through various different struggles through the courts, we have finally now secured a trial date for October 29th. We are going to be heading into trial with the Trump administration. The progress we made with that lawsuit is massive. It’s this three-part thing where we are focusing on the stories of the plaintiffs — all who are young people who have been affected by climate change in this country. It’s definitely not something that hasn’t been done before. A lot of people are calling it the trial of the century because of its relevance. We are demanding that the courts enact a climate recovery plan that will be put into place to reduce green gas emissions and curb our energy consumption in a really ambitious way and [work] towards renewable energy. It’s a really ambitious ask that we have and it’s a really important part of the movement and the solution we want to bring forth.
HipHopDX: Who are the other plaintiffs? How have they been affected by climate change?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: There are a handful of different plaintiffs from Alaska that are seeing the impact of permafrost thawing and how that’s impacting different communities and homes and literally forcing people to no longer live in places that they used to and affecting the migration patterns of different species there. There’s a little kid — youngest in the lawsuit — he just turned 10, his name is Levi. He’s from Florida and his community is facing massive sea level rise and erosion to the beachfront there so he’s had to move. Myself, [being] from Colorado, my entire life I have been growing up in the wilderness there. Due to warming temperatures, we are seeing a greater increase in wildfires, natural disasters, and floods. Pine beetles, which are a natural part of the ecosystem, are killing off more and more of our trees. When you drive up into our forest, you see acres and acres of forest that have been eaten by this beetle because of warmer temperatures [have caused] them to double their life cycle and go up to higher climates. Our winters are shorter and more sporadic. Our ski season has been affected, which is a big economic driving factor for Colorado.
HipHopDX: What drew you to Hip Hop?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: The first Hip Hop record I have ever listened to was actually a Michael Franti record called “Stay Human.” His music is very different now but that record was specifically very Hip Hop, R&B, and soulful. He was using it [Hip Hop] to talk about all kinds of political issues like socio-economic disparity. It really inspired me as an artist to use my platform and voice to talk about serious issues. I then started getting into other artists like Talib Kweli and Jurassic 5. I began to become obsessed with the culture and the artists that were pioneering and doing things differently and challenging the mainstream approach to making music while finding ways to still succeed and not just being compartmentalized as ‘conscious artists.’ I started writing bars when I was 11 or 12 and performing at schools. When I was doing environmental presentations, I would also rap about it to get the young people interested in it in different ways. We [my brother and I] would go to protests and events and also be rapping. We started performing in musical festivals as well. We got invited to several musical festivals, internationally — I started playing shows in Brazil and Australia when I was 12 or 13 at the time. I was using my image as a Hip Hop artist to talk about serious issues like the environment and really changing the way people view that image of wealth in Hip Hop and what it means to be a Hip Hop artist. It became a total passion for me, further than the movements and causes, it became a way for me to tell my story. That’s why I am writing music now and transitioning to continuing to make music that’s integral to what I believe in and also going to reach millions of people.
HipHopDX: In addition to your music career, you have also written a book. What are the benefits of approaching activism through these different mediums?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: I think we live in a world where things are changing really quickly all around us. We see that the state of our planet and the state of where things are socially and environmentally, we see there are massive issues around us. It’s not enough to approach things with the same traditional point of views and perspectives as we had been doing originally. When I first got involved [with environmental activism], it was only old white people who were involved in the environmental movement. Those people were an important demographic to reach but at the same time we need young people, we need people of color, and we need diversity in the demographics of people who are involved in these movements and struggles. That means we need to change the way we are having the conversation and talking to people.
I think Hip Hop and writing a book, you know going on talk shows like Bill Maher and The Daily Show, are all different ways that I have found to get into the eyes of different people. I am doing a bunch of modeling and doing sponsorships with companies to talk about these issues and get the story out to a wider demographic of people. It’s all about that transition and Hip Hop reaches the world and Hip Hop shifts culture and Hip Hop elevates the stories of oppressed people and always has so tapping into that is really important because it’s the youth that really need to hear the message. The youth need to be involved and shown that it’s not just activism, resistance, and protest but its creating cultural change. This is real shit. This is minority communities of color, this is Latino and Black communities being disproportionately affected by climate change. This is black communities being affected because they have a higher likelihood of a having a coal power plant in their backyard. This is tied to racial injustice and tied to gender inequality; women are [also] more likely to be affected by climate change. [I want to] teach people that this is a lot bigger than us and it’s a human issue and getting people to relate to it is the most important step in that direction.
Photo: Josue Rivas
HipHopDX: Do you have any advice for any activists who want to use music for their causes?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: We have to look closely at movements across history and recognize how significant of a role art has played from the Civil Rights movement to the Women’s Rights movement. Looking at artists like Bob Marley or John Lennon or different people who had that music to represent an era. [Whether] it’s peace and love or raging against the machine and the system. That has been some of the most successful ways to tell the stories across the mainstream. Young artists should really pursue that craft and be open to explore your sound and collaborate with lots of people out there. Bringing it into a communal space is really important and that’s what has made a lot of my efforts as an artist successful is being willing to collaborate with a lot of people and learn from every collaboration. Don’t be compartmentalized by your movement or activism and don’t let that limit your reach as an artist.
HipHopDX: What other musical projects are you’re working on?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: I am going to be submitting a single for release in June that I am incredibly excited about. The track is called “Limits” and it’s definitely going to be the hypest shit that I’ve dropped yet. The full BREAK FREE album that I’ve been cooking for the last year and a half is going to be released late this summer. I am already planning the following project as well. I am going to be touring in August and playing a handful of dates with other artists you have heard on the “Young” single. We are playing an Electric Forest show in June or July with Bassnectar and a handful of really dope artists.
For more info on Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and his upcoming tour run with Nahko and Medicine for the People and appearances at Cali Roots, Arise and Electric Forest Festivals, follow him on Instagram @xiuhtezcatl and SoundCloud.