In the spring I caught a short viral video, a NowThis compilation that summed up how 21 teen activists are suing the U.S. government for not doing enough to prevent climate change. The federal government filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed, but it was overruled in federal court. If the lawsuit passes, these meddling kids could really put limitations on how the government engages in fossil fuel projects. And that’s how I first came to hear of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the 16-year-old indigenous change agent at the of heart of the environmental movement.
“It takes a community to raise a child and I feel like that’s kind of the way that I was raised, you know? By my community. And that’s what has made my voice, that’s what has granted my voice access to reach a lot of people: because of the support I’ve had from community members and a lot of mentors, and a lot of people who have kind of helped guide me and given me support while at the same time letting me do my own thing [to] find out for myself what I want to do and who I want to be.” Martinez recently told me.
At age six, Martinez marked the beginning of his path into activism. He then discovered a passion for eco hip-hop three years later with the help of his siblings and the past generation of Earth Guardians, a Boulder-based nonprofit that use hip-hop as a tool to engage and share an action plan with the world. As youth director of the Earth Guardians, Martinez released Generation RYSE with his siblings in 2014. Its punchy production adds to the charm of its raps on climate change.
“I was 14 then; my voice was still figuring itself out. I mean the content was definitely more super-geared toward movement, like cause-related things. [My] new project gathers a lot of elements and things I’ve experienced over the last year that have helped shape me as a person as well as shaped my style of writing.”
Watch Xiuhtezcatl Martinez's "Indigenous Roots":
Martinez says the biggest difference between what he was doing then and what he’s doing now has a lot to do with age and maturity. The environmentalist is gearing up to release Break Free, which will mark his move into more serious eco hip-hop territory. The new EP is set to drop in November, and will explore the role that mental health plays in activism.
While Martinez's siblings will make appearances on at least half the tracks on Break Free, he’s been outsourcing much of the project himself. He’s brought a few of his producer friends into the mix, like up-and-coming singer/songwriter/rappers Tru and Raury. Martinez told me that other production inspiration came from artists like J Cole and Chance the Rapper, teasing during our phone interview about a possible collaboration with Chance. Martinez connected with the Chicago-based rapper at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit.
“I think bringing art is so important, because music more than anything brings people together. When I go marches or rallies or protests, a lot of time it's kind of a sterile environment. It needs, we need, the artists on board. We need the artists on the front lines.”
The recommendations from the landmark climate ruling last spring brought forth by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and 20 other youth plaintiffs through an organization called Our Generation are currently under review by Judge Ann Aiken of Oregon. Aiken, who is expected to announce her decision on the ruling publicly in mid-November, will determine whether or not the case will go to trial or an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
“If we win this lawsuit, it's going to force the federal government of the United States to massively reduce our carbon emissions every single year by regulating industry, by regulating our oil and fossil fuel consumption, and it's going to have a huge impact on the way that the world sees us as well.” Martinez said.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is on the front lines fighting for our future rights to clean air and water. Stay tuned for his Break Free EP in November, and keep up with this young and inspiring artist here.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.