For 17-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, there is a diaphanous line between activism and art. The indigenous climate activist and hip-hop artist has been standing up for his people and his planet since he was big enough to wield a bullhorn. In fact, it was this very device that first amplified the sound of his music to crowds of elementary school kids during the
environmental rallies of his early childhood.
“If you look at movements throughout history,” says Martinez, “movements have songs, movements have musicians. I’ve learned from music that art is one of the most powerful ways to engage people in anything.”
Martinez was a precocious six-year old with a cascade of tawny hair when he first began warning audiences that their planet was in danger. He has since spoken all over the world, addressing the Rio+20 United Nations Summit in Brazil and the UN General Assembly in New York. He currently serves as the youth director of Earth Guardians, a movement comprised of young activists and artists who lead environmental initiatives in their communities.
This year, Martinez joined 20 other youth plaintiffs in federal court, arguing that the U.S. government, in promoting the burning of fossil fuels that have exacerbated climate change, has violated his generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. He’s also an author, tackling the global climate crisis in a social movement-building manifesto entitled We Rise, which landed on shelves in the fall of 2017. “The whole book is really a call to action for our generation,” says Martinez. “It’s for all people looking for hope.”
It’s hard not to get swept up in his current of abundant energy and optimism. With almost 30,000 Instagram followers and having appeared on The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher, Martinez is no stranger to the public eye. While polished and poised, he remains earnest and idealistic in his commitment to his fellow youth. “I want to show all young people out there that we can create change,” he says. “We can lead our communities, pursue our passions, regardless of how old we are.”
But ask Martinez whether he identifies more as an activist or an artist, and he doesn’t hesitate to respond: “Music is a manifestation of my quest for justice,” he says. “There’s always going to be a balance because they’re so intertwined, but art is a vehicle of expression, in the same way that public speaking or community organizing is. Music is a vehicle for my voice to reach the world.”
Martinez’s music has come a long way since those first bullhorn performances. From sharing stages with hip-hop legends Talib Kweli and Jurassic 5 to collaborating with Chance the Rapper and Jaden Smith, Martinez is certainly making his voice heard. His debut album Break Free features a compilation of songs dedicated to racial injustice, indigenous rights, and, of course, climate change. He also plans to continue touring with the musical collective Nahko and Medicine for the People, hitting the east coast this spring.
“I’m beginning to work with some of the biggest names in hip-hop,” Martinez says, with a mix of determination and incredulity that feels particular to someone truly humbled by his own success. “I’m sharing my music with the world. It’s obvious that music is going to be my path for a long time.”