Indigenous activist and rapper Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced ‘shoo-TEHZ-caht’) is an unstoppable force. From suing the Trump administration to addressing the UN General Assembly, the 18-year-old activist has been passionately outspoken on environmentalist and indigenous issues. On his debut album Break Free, he demonstrates an advanced level of craftsmanship as both a producer and rapper. At times, his lyrics and production can be a bit heavy-handed. But overall, Break Free marks an exciting debut that demonstrates how music can enrich activism.
Xiuhtezcatl’s causes are rooted in an idealism for a better tomorrow. Album-opener “Tlahuiliz/Light” serves as a manifesto for those ideals. Over violin strings and guitar plucking, the Mashika-descendant activist delivers a spoken-word monologue about why his music is a continuation of his ancestors’ legacy. He preaches: “Our ancestors taught us that although our people were colonized, our temples destroyed and our ceremonies forbidden, our legacy would live on in flowers and songs, and in the heart of the people.”
The first couple of songs feature production inspired by the indigenous musical tradition. But most of the album is much more reminiscent of the Hip Hop musical Hamilton in which performers pack numerous concepts into high-speed verses over manic orchestral instrumentals. Occasionally, this can be exhausting. Xiuhtezcatl enlists a team of collaborators to help him flesh out this broad vision. “Sage Up” has impressive verses from stic.man of dead prez, Matene Strikefirst, and DJ Cavem Moetavation. The posse track addresses everything from “politicians ordering missile strikes” to humankind’s negative impact on the environment. Meanwhile, the activist-rapper flexes his linguistic range by jumping between English and Spanish on his bars.
The majority of tracks have up-and-coming artist Isa singing the choruses. Seemingly, Xiuhtezcatl and Isa are still working out the kinks in their partnership. “Magic” and “Constellations” could have used some polishing, while “One Day” falters with a weak hook. The best Isa-assisted track is “Blue Ink” in which Xiuhtezcatl gets introspective about the reality of capturing the world’s gaze. After imitating someone praising him for his activism, he raps: “I’m losing myself to my cause/ I’m no hero, I have many flaws/ Sacrifices I’ve given for the life I’ve been living/fighting for the children/ I’m fighting the odds.”
The album’s highlight is the single “Young” featuring actress Shailene Woodley and singer Nahko. The hit encapsulates Xiuhtezcatl’s artistic motivation. He raps about wanting his music to inspire other young people to pick up their own cause. Expanding on this idea, Woodley closes the song with a poem about being unafraid to confront apathy.
Break Free doesn’t always musically match the scope of Xiuhtezcatl’s ambitious goals. But in an era where nihilism reigns supreme in both culture and politics, the activist-artist has bravely used his art to express optimism.