Photos by Josué Rivas
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is going to change the world. The environmental activist and hip hop artist has done more with his 20 years on this earth than a room full of politicians over the course of their collected lifetimes. Here’s just a few worth noting: he’s the youth director of worldwide conservation organisation Earth Guardians; he addressed the UN at the age of 15 in English, Spanish and his native language Nahuatl; he’s given a number of TED Talks on environmental policy; he was awarded the U.S. Volunteer Service Award by Obama at the age of 13, and he was among a group of 21 young people suing the Trump administration for climate inaction. And we haven’t even started even gotten started on his musical output yet. Coming from a long line of climate change and indigenous rights activists, it’s no wonder that Xiuhtezcatl has the drive to make the world a better place not just for his generation, but for those to come, and we’re pretty chuffed to have him our 2020 edition of Bright Young Things. And seeing as the inspiring multi-hyphenate was first brought to our attention by none other than our good friends and activists, Portugal. the Man, we decided to hand over the interviewing honours to bassist Zachary Carothers. Take it away, Zach.
Zach: Where are you right now?
Xiuhtezcatl: West Philly. I’ve been posted up here for the last three months. My girl lives here. We’re in this big-ass apartment. There’re four of us. It’s a vibe, it’s nice. Philly is a really cool city as far as the East Coast goes.
Philly is just rad; the music, the history of that place is just wild.
A lot of crazy organising history here for sure. People have been doing dumb shit out here forever.
Let’s jump into these questions.
Who inspires you?
The people that inspire me are all around me. I’ve been dating this girl for the last two years who has helped instigate so much growth in the work that she does and the people that she surrounds herself with—people that I’m living with now. Super inspiring individuals who are all organizers with SunRise movement. They’re doing a lot of political work; they were working on Bernie’s campaign for a long time. But to sum this up with one person: my boy Phillip Agnew. He’s a social justice, civil rights activist. He did a lot of work out of Florida with the Dream Defenders… He’s one of the founding members, I believe. I was on the Bernie Sanders surrogate tour across California with him, going to different universities, talking about Bernie, about the platform, speaking to the youth. I really felt like he was a big brother in the movement for me. I’ve always been surrounded by adults and had really powerful mentorship, but he really honed it down. He’s a really eloquent communicator and has a lot of things that I really admire and I strive for.
I’m proud as hell of the youth of the world right now. There are so many kids that are starting up and just being real, speaking their truth. It’s awesome. So, what are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about a whole lot of shit. Even just picking up the guitar again since quarantine. My godmother, she is a bilingual translator and I grew up in a house with her and my little brother. She plays guitar, sings folk beautifully and I was talking to her about how I love learning. I love learning about vocals, engineering, a little bit of vocal mixing. I’ve always been intrigued with mastering whatever it is that I am drawn to. It’s not just that I want to learn a skill, I want to do it in a way that helps other people, even if it’s just setting an example to my little bro and my little sister.
I’m very passionate about hip hop and pop culture. Hip hop music, I really like the art behind it and the history… It’s interesting how hip hop culture has evolved and is emerging, and it’s really interesting to be a part of it. I’m passionate about a lot of things about indigenous cultures. I really appreciate the work that ya’ll [Portugal. the Man] do as artists, opening space for indigenous folks coming up and doing whatever it is they do, however they want. Opening up that space is really powerful. I always said if there’s ever a thing that I would pursue—whether if it was academically or in an institution that wasn’t climate justice work—it would be to go and sit with and learn from different elders and communities and indigenous cultures, and uncover a lot of my own too. That’s another thing, during the pandemic I’ve been learning my language [Nahuatl] every single week on Facetime and Zoom with my cousin, my pops, and Josue: learning the language, the functionality, the philosophy behind it, the poetry. I’m really passionate about reclamation of culture, reclamation of story.
I think there’s such a beautiful mix in knowing where you came from and keeping true to that, but a lot of times people think that traditional means only staying in that place. I don’t think that’s true. I think you can be completely traditional and keep it moving forward too. Learning from stories that have been around for generations and passing it on, because you have to tell your story in your own way.
100 percent. Yeah, and that’s a cool thing in my music and in hip hop and the rap lyrics that I’m writing. I’m realising in these verses and these songs I’m taking old stories that my grandmother told me in colloquial terms, that’s only used in our family—that’s not even a thing in Mexican slang, or in the slang of the barrio and the part of the city that my family is from. These things are in our language and I’m reinterpreting it through this lens of hip hop music. There’s this rap group from up in Canada called Snotty Nosed Red Kids, and I hear them doing it too; they’re speaking their language and incorporating things that are traditional but having it exist in a modern context. A lot of my homies talk extensively about indigenous futurism—how do we be intentional about not getting stuck in these frameworks of what indigenous people are and how they interact with the world? Whatever ways in which we continue to show up in the world, and media and culture, fashion and music, that is an ever-evolving thing. We are always going to draw from our roots and our lineage and what we came from, but it’s going to continue to evolve.
Yeah, exactly. You’re of indigenous and European descent, how does that influence the way you walk in life?
Yeah, man, I think it’s really interesting and I’ve been reflecting a lot on that lately too. There’s two sides of me. These two different parts have 100 percent shaped my identity and given me a lot of privileges to walk in multiple worlds, and even just holding multiple languages and connections as I go through the world and engage in non-white spaces. I’ve been really cultured in a lot of my life to be comfortable in white spaces because my mom is white; the schools that I went to had a lot of white students, the community that I grew up in was pretty white. At the same time, I can go to the barrio in Mexico where my family is from and feel really comfortable there, where there’s no running water. It’s a different vibe and a different scene. I navigate comfortably in both. I think that cultural identity, we associate with different levels of it. That code-switching that a lot of multicultural or biracial people do, we just adapt to where we’re at. It’s something I continue to reflect on within myself: How do I navigate this space in a good way? How do I take the beautiful things from both sides? I receive just as many really powerful foundational teachings from my mom’s side, who has no connection to her ancestry as I have from my father, who is deeply connected to our grandmother’s lineage.
It’s been a journey, and I think I’ve had to do a lot of unlearning as well; a lot of challenging what both of my parents have brought me up in. Like in Latino culture, it’s kind of fucked up with older generations being homophobic or hitting their kids in my dad’s generation and in Mexico. I had a really beautiful conversation with my dad the other day; we were talking about the way that I was brought up and the different things that I learned from my culture. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m missing so much still, there’s so much I haven’t learned.’ And he was saying, ‘I could have done better, I could have been a more present teacher, I could have brought you up more traditionally. But at the end of the day, this foundation is within you. It’s not just in your blood, it’s in your spirit. You carry part of our culture with you everywhere you go. It’s not about what you didn’t learn, or what you could’ve done better back then, it’s where you go from here and how you hold space for that within you.’ I feel like I’ve learned a lot about my identity through how my little brother has navigated it too. It’s very deep… You got me off on a tangent.
No that’s what I’m into. That’s what I’m curious about, that’s rad. I think feeling a sense of belonging in a place is an issue for many people, including a lot of people close to me. What was your childhood like, and how did you get into music?
It’s funny, I wouldn’t say either of my parents are particularly musical. My dad loved all kinds of music. It was cool, we would listen to German metal and all kinds of world music, East African, folk music, old traditional Mexican music, a lot of classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I feel exposed to a lot of different music. We’d go to sleep listening to Enya and shit like that. The first time I ever really listened to hip hop was Michael Franti’s record called Stay Human. If you think of Michael Franti, it’s not like he’s doing hip hop now, but back then he was making some revolutionary hip hop shit. I fell in love with that record and played it and played it and played it. I was like eight years old when I got that record. Then I started diving into hip hop culture, listening to artists like KRS1, the Roots, Pharcyde, and started educating myself and even looking at the Colorado hip hop scene, like the Flobots, who were doing cool stuff at the time combining that punk element, radical, Rage Against the Machine kind of vibes with the whole live band. I ended up getting to collaborate with them on various accounts.
I started rapping when I was eleven, just on environmental ticks. My older siblings were doing it, all my siblings are musical; my older brother raps, my older sisters are incredible singers, and I started rapping purely as another way to talk about environmental issues. Then, I was like ‘Nah, this is more than that,’ and I started to evolve. My influences expanded and now it’s been several years of recognising the power that the platform of music has gotten me, to have a space away from the environmental movement. I started making beats on Ableton and did this whole album project crowdfunded and got it off the ground. I made it myself with some of my good friends out in LA, and the first record I did was called Break Free, and since then the growth and change the music has gone through has been really interesting for me. I continue to see how powerful a vehicle music is to connect the world and these movements. Especially hip hop… seeing the history it has and the close relationship it has with social movements is super inspiring.
Totally. Hip hop has completely changed the world and brought so much attention to so many issues. They’re still nowhere near being solved, but hip hop makes you hear it. You did a lot of activism really young, right?
Yeah, I started getting on stage and talking about it when I was like six…
I definitely grew up around it. My sister was organising through a lot of education in local high schools when I was like four, five, six years old. She was running it at the time and then I grew up with my mom doing a lot of organising with the Earth Guardians back in the day. My pops was also a spokesperson when he was sixteen, seventeen with the United Nations. It was part of the upbringing, you know, to be a part of the Earth Guardians, to embody that work was part of being in our family. Actual community organising stuff began when I was about nine and that’s when we started getting involved in local campaigns and changing local policy around chemical pesticides, coal ash, natural gas expansion across the Front Range. It was cool how that change in us gave it a feel to work with other peers. Other young people started to pull up to these events and rallies and shared their voice. It was a whole wave that came at my community in a really strong and powerful way. A lot of young people were stepping up and getting involved with Earth Guardians. Those were really powerful times in my life.
Stuff started changing and I started traveling to Brazil for the Rio Plus 20 UN Summit with my little brother. We were out there performing, rapping, speaking in conferences and I saw a lot of the world through this lens of conferences and the United Nations, and me and a whole squad of young people pulled up to Paris for the big conference of parties around climate, and me and my homies were running around the streets playing these random-ass shows; half of my crew was sick and couldn’t sing, and we were still out at these clubs and after parties with the Indigenous Environment Network, taking over stages in some of these spots and doing these demonstrations to protest the corporate nature of these climate conversations that are owned by big oil companies.
What is your hope for the next seven generations?
My friend Lyla June, her and Josué [Rivas] just put out an incredible short documentary called Future Ancestor. The whole concept of being a future ancestor is crazy. She says this one thing in the documentary that’s super powerful, along the lines of, ‘it’s important to know that seven generations behind me there was someone preparing for me to be here right now, to do what I’m doing’. So our work is to prepare for who is going to be in these spaces seven generations from now. My hope for the future and for generations that I’ll never know or never see is to lay the groundwork and do something more than for myself or for my own human experience. My hope is that in seven generations the world will be radically different, in a good way. My ultimate hope is that humanity will learn to live in balance, with ourselves, within the natural world.