Hip-hop artist and activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez | Sunday Observer

Hip-hop artist and activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

12 July, 2020

Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced shoo-tez-cat) Martinez may only be 20, but his list of accomplishments would outdo those of someone far beyond his years. The indigenous American activist was just six when he spoke at his first climate event, making his debut speech at the United Nations aged 12. He made headlines three years later when he became one of 21 young people to file a landmark lawsuit against the US government for failing to act on climate change. 

Now, Martinez is global youth director of campaign group Earth Guardians and the co-founder of carbon-removal initiative NOW, which launched in September 2019. He’s also a hip-hop artist, and made an appearance on Miley Cyrus’s IGTV series Bright Minded in April. “It’s important for me to speak up and use my voice,” Martinez, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, tells Vogue. “The climate crisis is not some separate issue that I spend my free time thinking about; it is fundamentally [part of] every aspect of my life.” 

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the young activist has been focusing on helping those most affected, as well as continuing to fight for climate action.

Here, Martinez speaks to us about why Covid-19 gives us a glimpse into the future, the importance of supporting and listening to indigenous communities, and why he remains hopeful that the world will overcome the challenges it faces.

What made you join the environmental movement at such a young age?

“People fight for what they love. I grew up being taught to love my culture as an indigenous person, to have love for the land, water, the natural world around me. As an indigenous person on my father’s side, our cultural survival was tied to the preservation of our land. My mother was very involved as an environmental activist growing up, so it’s come from family.”

Why is working with and supporting indigenous communities so important when it comes to fighting climate change?

“If you look historically, and presently, indigenous communities have been the leading voices within environmental justice struggles, not only bearing the brunt of the impact but also carrying the torch in clearly communicating what is needed to keep fossil fuels in the ground (and) to honour and respect all of the natural world as if it were a part of us, because it is. 

“A huge amount of the solutions that are needed to solve this [climate] crisis lie within the wealth of knowledge of the traditional peoples that have been caring for these territories for generations.”

Tell us about your carbon-removal subscription service NOW, which funds the planting of trees and carbon-capture machines

“(It’s) a doorway for people who haven’t tapped into the climate movement [previously] to take that first step towards getting involved. We wanted to accelerate this movement to remove massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and (have a) measurable impact. 

“What I love about this project is forming relationships with different indigenous and frontline communities across the country and the world. It’s much more holistic than a lot of other approaches I’ve seen towards carbon removal. (We want to) invest in growing food forests that will yield crops for (indigenous) communities, while continuing to remove carbon from the atmosphere. 

“Innovations such as direct carbon-capture machines [which take carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into stone] are important; we need to push the envelope and reimagine the scale of how impactful and imaginative we can be with these solutions.”

Are you concerned about the impact Covid-19 will have on climate action and that tackling the climate crisis might drop off the agenda?

“The problem with the communication around the climate crisis is that for so long, we’ve treated it as if it’s an existential (crisis); a long-term crisis that’s going to affect us in 50 to 100 years. It’s important that we can communicate that the ways in which this pandemic is transforming society (right now) - and causing so much suffering - is a glimpse into the future of what the climate crisis will (be like). 

“The solutions that we can fight for to protect communities and human lives within this pandemic are completely aligned with the solutions that we need to invest in for the future. The climate crisis is so far from just an environmental issue; it encapsulates everything that humanity is facing, specifically frontline communities.”

You received global attention when you and 20 other young activists decided to sue the US federal government for failing to act on climate change. Why did you want to go to the courts?

“We filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration in 2015 because of its failure to adequately respond to the climate crisis - a crisis that scientists have known is a threat for decades now. Obviously in 2016, Trump took office and so our case pivoted to the administration in power. It is now in the hands of the Ninth Circuit court; as long as there’s still an opportunity for us to have our voices heard, we’re going to be fighting to get our trial. One of the coolest things about this lawsuit is that it’s shown the world that it is legally possible to hold our governments accountable for climate inaction.”

How do you use your music to get the message out there?

“When I began to tour and play shows and release music, I realised some of the most radical ways we can engage in these movements is by doing what we love. When I’m up on stage, that is when I am most authentically engaging with the world. In February, I dropped an album called Voice Runners with (LA-based artist) Tru and (producer) Jaiia Cerff. If people listen to the album, they’ll understand what I’m saying; there’s a way to weave climate action into everything we do.”

In what ways are you hopeful about the future?

“The adversity that my ancestors experienced so that I could be here is a powerful example of human resilience. A lot of people in indigenous communities carry this saying, that ‘we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams’. I believe we are here for a reason. “I have a lot of hope this climate crisis can be humanity’s most unifying moment, an opportunity for us to essentially reset and redetermine what kind of systems we want to exist to govern and shape our lives. I believe that humanity will inherently do the right thing to correct our course. Whether that’ll happen fast enough is entirely up to us.”