Environmental Activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: A Teen on the Front Lines

"The change that we need is not going to come from a politician, from an orangutan in office, it's going to come from something that's always been the driver of change – people power, power of young people"

Martinez's new album, 'Break Free,' addresses racial injustice, climate change, police brutality, indigenous rights and what's it's like to be a teenager living very publicly on the front lines of those issues. Credit: Benjamin Rasmussen for Rolling Stone

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For hip-hop artist and environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the next 12 months will be nothing short of game changing. Not only is the landmark climate lawsuit he helped bring against the federal government scheduled to be heard in open court in February 2018, but Break Free, his solo record debut, is set for a September release. And his book, We Rise, what he calls a "tool kit" for grassroots mobilizing, is also due this fall.

Martinez (whose first name is pronounced Shoe-Tez-Caht), considered the next-gen face of climate activism, has addressed the United Nations multiple times, including in 2015 when his rousing speech in English, Spanish and the Nahuatl language of his Aztec forebears electrified members of the General Assembly. In his spare time, he's fighting to ban fracking in Colorado and recording with Atlanta rapper Raury and Jaden Smith. Not bad for a guy who just turned 17.

But he knows he's facing a tough fight.

A recent survey shows that only 13 percent of Americans know there is scientific consensus on climate change. That riles Martinez. "The most important thing we can do is change that statistic," he tells Rolling Stone. "And change the way we're talking about climate change. It's not a left liberal partisan environmental problem. It's a human issue, it's a human crisis. It involves and connects every person on this planet."

The so-called "trial of the century" may help. Early next year, Juliana v the United States, the climate lawsuit brought by Martinez and 20 other kids will finally be heard in a federal courtroom in Oregon. Martinez calls it the movement's biggest victory in a very long time. "We're in a position where 21 young people are going up against one of the most powerful countries in the planet and one of the biggest industries on earth – the fossil fuel industry – and there's so much at stake," he says. "The marching in the streets, the lifestyle changes haven't been enough so something drastic needs to happen. The change that we need is not going to come from a politician, from an orangutan in office, it's going to come from something that's always been the driver of change – people power, power of young people."

Cleared to proceed to trial just days after the election that put a climate denier in the White House, the lawsuit represents a critical opportunity; for the first time, irrefutable climate science will be laid out to the public and to the world's media. Plaintiff lawyers will argue that by promoting the extraction of fossil fuels, the federal government is in violation of the public trust doctrine that guarantees citizens a clean and healthy environment.

In a 2016 interview, Real Time host Bill Maher challenged Martinez on young people's fixation with phones and social media, suggesting that it prevents them from engaging on issues like climate change. "I have a phone," laughs Martinez now. "I think it's an important tool that we have for networking and connecting with people. Social media and technology – it's either a downfall and distraction for our generation, or a powerful tool we can use."

Martinez calls last year's protest at Standing Rock – an event organized and documented through social media – monumental and life-changing. "A lot of people are under the impression that because they built the pipeline and shut down the prayer camps and evacuated the Water Protectors, it means we lost. What happened at Standing Rock was unprecedented. We've never seen mobilization that big from indigenous communities worldwide: people coming together to defend indigenous rights; Black Lives Matter standing in solidarity. It was a very connected movement, but it was about protecting children, land, clean water, people standing in solidarity with their brothers and sisters. If you saw the brutality, the militarized police... that's happening in America, not some Third World country. All people – white people, patriots, veterans who fought for this country – we saw it. We lived it."

Martinez's new album – which he describes as "powerful, captivating, lit, and really fun" – addresses racial injustice, climate change, police brutality, indigenous rights and, he says, what's it's like to be a teenager living very publicly on the front lines of those issues. "I'm telling my own story as a young artist, a young 17-year-old growing up in this world, what the hell it's like to process all that," he says "I'm beyond stoked to release this record, simply because it's a massive step for me in the world of music. It's an opening up to the world about who I am and what it is that I'm fighting for in a way that I never have before. A lot of the time you read an article or see a video about me and say 'Oh, that's the kid who spoke in the U.N., or that's the kid who's suing the government.' The record is going to change the way the world sees me, and it's going to change the way that I've told my story to the world."