Xiuhtezcatl Wants Us to Celebrate Climate Justice
T he climate crisis cannot be ignored. Every Friday, Milk will be focusing on solutions and stories from the environment’s biggest supporters; through essays, photo stories, updates on the latest technologies, and tips to combat the climate crisis, we’ve got you covered. This week we speak with artist and activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez.
You’re currently in LA on this run of shows – how has that experience been?
It’s crazy seeing how art has become one of the most powerful tools that I’ve been able to tap into, to tell these stories and to engage in this movement all over the world, with all different kinds of people.
I’ve been an artist since I was seven and I’ve carried that identity strongly for a minute now. Understanding the long term vision of where we’re going has never been as clear as it is today, especially with where the movement is, with the explosion of the conversation around climate justice. Every generation has had artists who have been influential in shaping and contributing to movement culture. We are approaching that moment where artists are going to represent the movements and the stories that will define our generation. And I’m excited to play a part in that.
It’s been beautiful to play these shows all over the place, and see how the art serves as a tool to break down barriers between people, to create a different kind of conversation around this work and these movements. It really is this kind of mecca for dialogue, and conversation, and inspiration, and energy. And I think that’s one thing that our generation is doing really differently within these movements and within the spaces.
We are understanding that the whole conversation around this work has to be different, you know? And it can’t be defined by the past generation’s perception of what environmental work is or what these causes have to look like. Because we’re in a new time; the crisis has evolved, and is worse than it has ever been. And that means that the movements have to be diverse, creative, inspiring, and moving enough to reflect and to match the crisis.
Our movements have to be different than they have been in the past. And I think that the artists that I’m connecting with, all over the place, are understanding our part in reimagining and recreating the culture of our movements with a diversity of art and that language at the forefront of how we communicate and how we speak to the world.
You said that you’ve been an artist since you were a child, what mediums of art have you tapped into?
My mom brought home a shitty, old Salvation Army piano for free when I was seven. I sat down and began to play, and I was like, “Mom, I’ve done this before. I feel like I’ve done this before,” on some past-life type vibe. It was very meditative. Even when I was that young, I knew so profoundly within myself that it allowed me to connect to myself, into my own emotions, and into how I was feeling in my energy, in a different way. I began to compose and write my own music when I was seven, eight, nine. I recorded a little, acoustic piano album, classical piano vibe. There was a whole period of my life where I was composing and writing so much music on the piano. And then when I was 11, I began rapping.
My older siblings and cousins, their work in the environmental movement, with Earth Guardians, was also very revolved around the music and around the art. They wouldn’t only travel and speak about environmental projects and education, but they would perform in all of these communities. There was a whole crew; it’s a nonprofit organization, but it’s also a performance group; there were dancers, and choreographers, and singers, and rappers…so I grew up around that too.
I grew up around my whole family being pretty musical and expressing not just our own passion, but also our passion for these movements, and for this work through the art.
So I was kind of like, “Well, okay, now I’m involved in these movements; I’m now involved in this world of the environment, of climate justice, I should use Hip-Hop and Rap as a tool to talk about this work.” I just stuck with it and started making my own beats, and then kind of started differentiating my identity as an artist from The Earth Guardians around 13 or 14.
So now you’re 19…you were really born into the climate crisis, and into a situation where it couldn’t be ignored. What has it been like growing up with such clear priorities and values?
My mom raised me in the movement through her investment, from the organization, Earth Guardians, which she’d began building long before I was born. She had this vision, my older siblings had been involved in it; it was a very familial thing, and very part of who we were, as a family. Our identity was to be at the front lines of these different actions and movements in this work from the community level.
On my dad’s side, he had also been involved in this work, since he was 16 or 17, traveling and representing Mexico, on culture, the environment, and spirituality. He carried a very public persona, similar to the one that I’ve had for a lot of my life. For him, I think it was very founded in our identity as indigenous peoples. Because for us, activism is not an external use of energy or a cause outside of us that we tap into, it is our life, it is our existence. And this is something that many, many people have said…many elders have taught me that our existence is resistance. To live on this earth as indigenous peoples, through the struggles of colonization and genocide, we have been standing to protect and defend our land, our water, our culture, our language.
The climate crisis is an existential threat to all humanity, but is also a threat to our cultural survival, because indigenous peoples are at the forefront of the impacts of this crisis. So for me, the work for the climate, I have been involved in since I was five or six. Since I can remember, these conversations have been present in my household, but my investment in it is a preservation of culture, it’s a preservation of my ancestral lineage. So it’s a different kind of connection than just being an activist, it was understanding my voice as a native person; that’s where all the work comes from.
Like you just said, this responsibility is inherent in you, and it’s one that you’re glad to be a part of — how have you dealt with this weight while being in this spotlight from such a young age?
It’s been really interesting, kind of being in the public eye since I was really little, and having that just be a part of my life. I’ll never be shown anything else, you know? For the first, 12-13 years, it was more mellow. I was recognized in the community, and people in the environmental space in Boulder would recognize me.
We are at a time now, where there’s such a popularization of activist culture; there are almost these climate celebrities. In one way it’s really dope, because it’s getting the story and the message of this work out to millions of people across the planet. And then in another way, I see it doing a lot of harm within the movement. Not that these individuals are doing harm, but I think this archetype in our society, with the media selecting heroes to elevate and to place on platforms, is damaging to other kids, and young people who then may have the integrity of their work kind of clouded by this.
I see an underlying layer with some young people in this space of seeking that clout and that recognition and platform. A lot of these kids, that you do see having a platform are not always sticking to a cohesive narrative or a cohesive story. And it can be damaging to have a platform and a voice without fully understanding how to weild; it can be damaging to the overall movement.
As someone who has had that role for a long time, I’m looking at how to balance and how to play the role of a leader by stepping back, in a lot of ways, because I think that there is a really valuable moment for us to reflect on what is it that we are really fighting for. What is that we are asking for? What is the story of our movement? How are we going to be a part of it? In my own leadership, I’m excited for a revaluation of my work publicly, to go inward, to do the work internally that needs to be done. I’ve spoken at thousands of events for millions of people, in the last 13 years, and now the vision is becoming more clear…it’s less about how many people hear your voice, and more about, what is it that you have to say when people listen.
What is the call to action? What is that thing that you are asking people to do? Or what you’re inspiring people to do? Because if it’s just like, “Care about the environment,” we know that; that is understood widely by our generation. Now, what are the projects? What are the technologies that we can get behind? What are the policies we can push? In one way, I’m trying to step out of the spotlight in the world as an activist, but as an artist, I’m trying to continue elevating my profile; so it’s two worlds that I’m walking in, and it’s very interesting.
What are some of those calls to action?
Other than NOW, where you can help reverse the climate crisis by planting trees, a really important step that people skip over, is understanding our place in this. That is a process that evolves, and that we go through, and it changes. It’s really beneficial for people to take time to consider and to think about how this movement connects you? How does this work reflect your reality, in your life? In the world that you’re living in? Whether that’s as a student, or a teacher, or entrepreneur, or a high school dropout, like me? Whatever it is, how does this work apply to your life?
That comes from having these kinds of conversations with people in our community. One of the most beneficial tips I’ve really benefited from is to do this from a place of community, and togetherness. I’ve gone through a lot of my life doing this work relatively alone, and feeling very alone. And it’s been really difficult and damaging in a lot of ways. To have that solitary investment in this work sucks. It does not feel good. So I guess for other youths out there, the first step can be to find other people that have that initial spark, that initial interest, “I want to get involved. I care about this. I know that there’s something wrong.” I think that the ability to move from there, into action, can really be changed when you realize you don’t have to do it alone. You have other people in your school, in your family, in your town, or on the internet that you can connect with, that can help you along that journey.
Because it isn’t easy, it is a task, and it is heavy to do this work. To have that sense of community while you’re building that, I think is really powerful, and is really necessary. And Earth Tracks is a reinforcement that reminds you of the power of our individual actions. It’s not like using less plastic is going to clean up the oceans, but using less plastic, and building that awareness within ourselves, connects us to the oceans, and helps us understand that the way we walk, the way we move, the things we do, the food we eat, is all connected. Those are all lifelines that tie us to these life-giving systems that are supporting our lives and our existence. We are so connected to everything around us.
How do you utilize your platform as an artist to spread awareness about the issues you’re looking to combat? And how have you seen it be meaningful?
What I’ve learned in the last few years is that the most effective way to engage in these movements is when you are approaching it from a space of being fully authentic and true to yourself. If you’re frontin’ like you’re an activist when that’s not how you feel, and that’s not how you identify, that’s not gonna be effective. Or if you’re trying to fill the shoes of someone else or assimilate to a certain, stereotypical image of what you think your role is in this work, then it’s not going to work. For me, that authentic connection is through art and music. The power in me using my music isn’t just because more people listen to music, than listen to podcasts about the planet; the power in me, using my music, is the fact that it is a reflection of who I am; in a way that nothing else is. When I’m going out, and I’m touring, and I’m playing 20 shows a month, in cities all over the country, I get to go and have conversations, and test the waters, and see: what are people feeling? What are people hyped up on? What is the energy of our country right now?
When you play these shows, you’re changing the energy of a venue and the space that you’re performing in. You can see how that reflects in the stories in your music. I don’t like to be identified solely as an Eco Hip-Hop artist or Conscious Hip-Hop artist, or any of that. I don’t feel that authentically represents who I am.
My music is a reflection of my reality, and part of my reality has been 13 years in these movements, so of course, those stories are going to be woven in.
At the Fridays for Future March in New York, there were 350,000 people marching through the city. And when I got up on stage, I opened with a verse, because that’s how I communicate, that’s how I speak, and that’s how I connect with people. Those lyrics are my story. You saw it in the eyes of the people listening, that changed the energy; when Jaden and Willow [Smith] got up to perform, that changed the energy. And it brings back this element of celebration into our movement, that is so necessary. I think music is good for a whole lot of things, and one of them is celebration. I think we need to celebrate and be on that wave more than we have been because it inspires and excites more people to be involved in this work.
Let’s talk about your creative process. How does the music come out of your head and into the world?
It’s so crazy, my creative process has evolved so much in the last year. It really changed when I wrote this next album that’s coming out called, “Voice Runners.” Usually, I’m so meticulous, it takes me hours, if not days, if not weeks, sometimes a year to write a song. Sometimes it’s just something that I have to sit with and wait until I get that download. In September-October, about exactly a year ago, I was on tour, and we stopped through LA, and my boy, TRU, who is one of my favorite artists and one of my greatest creative inspirations, met in the studio one night. We made two songs. I’d never done anything that fast. We came back to LA a few weeks later, and we sat down and essentially we wrote, recorded, and produced 11 songs in four days. I was matching his energy because he writes so fast.
It isn’t just about how much can you say in a verse, it’s how can you craft every part of your verse to tell a story, not just the words. How do you allow the cadence, and the sound of your voice, and the breaths, and the space to help tell the story? I love creating with people. I love being in the studio collaboratively and bouncing ideas. I was just in the Bay with my boys CRSB, who are Samoan, and from Hawaii. And I love to do almost all of my creating with my boy, Jaiia. He doesn’t only make all the beats, but he also an incredible songwriter. We’re always writing hooks together, we’re always rippling, iterating on verses together. I’ve allowed the process of creation and of writing to become much more free.
What are you working on now?
Voice Runners, this album with TRU should be out in the world in the next three months.
Why is it called Voice Runners?
It has taken many shapes. Initially, Voice Runners was a platform to elevate the stories of the voices of the young warriors of our generation. At first, I wanted it to be a social collective of artists. We got in the studio and Jaiia starts the track and during the intro he’s like, “VOOOOOICE RUNNERSSS.”
In that moment, we knew it was the name of our record. It represents me and TRU as young spokespeople for our communities, as young warriors. His ancestors are from Belize, my people are from Mexico, so a lot of this album is about our identity, and the stories that we’re telling, and the energy that we are bringing from our ancestral lineage to the world. The sound of it is just so beautiful. An elder once told me that, when I speak or perform, that I am carrying the prayers of all of our people; that’s exactly what Voice Runners means and reflects. We are carrying the voices and the stories and the prayers of our people with us, as warriors.
Last question – what advice do you have for people who look up to you?
A huge part of everything that I’ve done, and created in my life is because of the platform that I’ve been offered from birth; from having Earth Guardians as a platform, to reach and to build from, to have my cultural and ancestral wisdom, to teach and to guide me. I believe that my life’s work is to help build these platforms for my generation. And to contribute to creating a space that uplifts the voice and stories of all young people, because this is not about me. And this has never been about me.
For people out there looking up to me, I want to encourage you to understand that your place in this movement, in this work, is just as important as mine. That doesn’t mean you have to go sue the government, or you gotta dedicate your life to this. I’ve spent my life, sharing my light. And the whole purpose of that is to inspire the rest of my generation to do the same. I’m not just trying to collect more followers. The work is to inspire more leaders. I believe in you. I believe in the power you have, to share that, to tell that story. And I’m excited to build this together, to build a legacy together. Because it really is going to take each and every one of us.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Juliet Wolf
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Kaia Miller
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Karlhens Pompilus
STYLIST: Talia Bella
STYLIST ASSISTANT: Angie Cabrera
Stay tuned to Milk for more climate crisis solutions.