Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: “This crisis is one of the most unifying moments of human history”

Indigenous activist and musician on turning despair into action

Courtesy of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
28 August 2019

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez will speak at the Global Landscapes Forum New York on 28 September 2019. Learn how to join the event here.

Fame can be a double-edged sword for a climate activist. The political nature of climate advocacy work means it often entails making as many enemies as allies – those who stand up for the planet can also become easy targets.

What does Xiuhtezcatl Martinez make of being one such figure? With his Indigenous Aztec heritage and iconic long hair, the 19-year-old from Boulder, Colorado is rising in the zeitgeist for his work as the youth director of Earth Guardians, as one of 21 young people suing the U.S. federal government for its inaction on climate change, and as an increasingly successful hip-hop artist.

Yet despite having so much to say, he views himself as a mere character in humanity’s story in the face of climate change.

“I think humanizing [the climate] issue and this movement is one of the most significant things that we have to do,” he says. “That’s why people get so hyped when they see a figure like Greta Thunberg – because then they can identify it with more than just an ice cap or a polar bear. It becomes a face, a story, a person.”

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
Courtesy of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

Having spoken publicly on climate and environmental issues since the age of 6, Martinez is no stranger to the spotlight. He admits to thriving in his ‘hero’ status – but he insists that activists in his position need to “be as relatable and human as possible.”

“That ‘greatness’ that I have achieved is something that everybody has the ability to create and be,” he stresses. “Really, any one of us has this power. It should be normal to do this, to care and be involved and have your voice heard.”

Making his voice heard to Landscape News readers, Martinez here speaks about important life lessons, the interplay between music and activism, and how to maintain hope in an age of climate change and the human rights and social issues following in tow.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

You started out purely as an environmental activist, before eventually becoming a hip-hop artist as well. How did that transition come about?

I think art has a direct connection with people’s heartstrings. I tapped into that and began falling in love with the movement of creating music that’s deeper than just entertainment. Playing on stage and being in the studio – I came to see that as one of the most profound ways that people can feel invested in this work and these stories, as it’s presented to them in a way that they’re familiar with, comfortable with, and understand. These stories are so necessary to reach the masses and reach mainstream culture, and music is one of the most powerful avenues to help facilitate that process.

Music has long been a channel for activism, and hip-hop is no exception. What is it about the genre that attracted you specifically to become a rapper?

It’s one of the more authentic, raw, uncensored genres of music. Hip-hop artists have always been representative of their people and of their communities. For me, it’s tapping into that long lineage of artists who have always been at the forefront of challenging the status quo. That’s where the draw of hip-hop really comes from.

Do you see important parallels between the struggles of African-Americans, who pioneered hip-hop, and those of Indigenous peoples?

Yeah, for sure. There’s a sense of unity between marginalized communities through the different struggles that our people are experiencing, and we understand and recognize each other. I’m pulling on the roots of where the art came from but also integrating a lot of Latin and Indigenous influences – from the language I’m speaking to the instrumentals and the vocals. It’s very much a modern interpretation of old ways. I grew up learning art and traditional songs in my language [Nahuatl], and so infusing that into the hip-hop that I’m creating is a way that I’m making it my own.

You’ve been involved in activism since the age of 6. What are the most important things you’ve learned?

I was once asked: ‘Do you have something to say, or do you have to say something?’ That’s a question you should ask yourself daily. Some of the most authentic expressions of leadership are stepping back and allowing other voices to be heard, and it’s part of the lesson of leadership.

It’s also very important to understand what you’re fighting for and have a clear vision, and to keep a healthy support system and structure of people around you who can help you achieve your goals.

Another important lesson is to be really well informed. The better informed you are, the more powerful you’ll be. You have to understand the complexity of the communities and cultures that are influenced by the work that you’re doing.

One last thing – we need to celebrate more, and be in good spirits more often, because it’s really heavy work.

Having been in activism for so long, you’ve grown up with a lot of attention from the media and also from your opponents. How have you dealt with the pressure that comes with that?

I’ve just had the most supportive community. Being surrounded by peers who are in the same boat and go through similar struggles is really comforting and really grounding. Being connected to my traditions and my culture is very grounding amidst the pressure of the work that I do. It’s a reminder of who and what I’m doing it for that keeps me centered and humble.

One of the biggest struggles that people in my position go through is ego. I’ve been really well equipped to deal with that. My entire life, I feel that I’ve been well guided by prayer and ceremony, by my family, my elders and my peers to always remember what we’re fighting for and what we’re truly representing.

How do you maintain hope in the face of the many challenges that humanity faces today?

It’s tough. It’s definitely a consistent struggle. But I find hope in my generation. I find hope in understanding where I come from, understanding the long lineage of oppression and suffering that my people have endured to create a space where I can be here today. We have a really big responsibility to honor that struggle. And there’s power in that. I was taught my whole life that our ancestors are walking with us. We are never alone in this world and in this work. It’s a continuation of the sacred work that our people have been doing for generations.

I strive to encourage people to come from a place of hope and a place of power and a place of understanding that adversity is an opportunity for growth and human evolution. This crisis is one of the most unifying moments of human history. Viewing it through that lens – I think it’s a perspective change that we need to undergo.

And doing this with people you love and who love you, you’re reminded that you’re not going through this alone. You’re not the only person stressing about these issues.

Looking ahead, what are your plans for the next few years?

One of the biggest things missing from this movement is a back end that translates people power into tangible action. Every time an environmental documentary comes out, there’s all this hype, people are maybe a little bit more aware, but I see a lack of follow-through.

There’s a recent survey that found that 28 percent of Americans would pay USD 10 a month to reverse the climate crisis. And the most cost-effective way to do that is to plant a trillion trees. So we’re building a subscription service to reverse the climate crisis, and the back end will be to plant trees using humans and drone technology. We’re working with a company that’s planting 150 trees a minute with drones and reforesting large parts of the world.

The front end will be a new company we’re starting called Now. It’s going to have a climate action plugin that can be used in anything from concert tickets to beauty products and that will give money toward planting a trillion trees.

We’ll be bringing in young leaders from all the top youth climate organizations to be on the board to help steer the direction of this company. As they get people to sign up for the subscription service or big investors to put money into drawdown projects, their organizations will receive a percentage of that money to help fund the youth climate movement.

So essentially, it’s a subscription service and a drawdown plugin that can be implemented anywhere. The vision is to change the culture of the climate movement, to create something that the mainstream audience can participate in very easily. We want climate action to be as ubiquitous as transacting currency.

Along with that, becoming a successful touring and recording artist, dropping albums, all the good stuff!


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