Meet the Teenage Indigenous Hip-Hop Artist Taking on Climate Change

Rolling Stone recently sat down with Xiuhtezcatl Martinez after his powerful speech at the United Nations

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez recently gave a speech on climate change at the U.N., partially in Spanish and Nahuatl. Credit: Tamara Roske

Recently, on the east side of Manhattan, there was a dignified gathering to discuss the end of the world. At the U.N.'s high-level event on climate change, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticized what he called the snail's pace of the last negotiations before the COP21 – the major climate conference coming up later this year in Paris. Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, delivered a mournful report on the massive relocation of his drowning island nation.

And then, a relative unknown took the mic. Dressed in a donated suit, with dark hair skimming his waist, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the youth director of Earth Guardians, issued a brief prayer in both Spanish and the Nahuatl language. As befuddled U.N. staffers reached for headphones, seeking translation, he began an extemporaneous speech on the folly of climate dithering.

"I stand before you representing my entire generation," he said. "Youth are standing up all over the planet to find solutions. We are flooding the streets and now flooding the courts."

"We need you to take action. We are all indigenous to this earth."

When he finished just over nine minutes later, climate negotiators and representatives from nearly 200 countries had seen the face of America's next-generation environmental movement: a 15-year-old trilingual Indigenous hip-hop artist from Boulder who sits on Obama's youth council and who's already organized youth crews on six continents.

Rolling Stone recently spoke to Martinez about young people fighting climate change, his Aztec heritage and dancing to Kendrick Lamar.

You've talked about changing human consciousness around climate change. What does that mean?

We don't have to all stop using fossil fuels entirely and go live in the woods. That's not what this is at all about. It's about understanding — seeing — that the way we're interacting with the world is destroying the planet. We see the Earth as something we can use, something we can take from — cut down the last forest, fish the last big fish in the ocean. There's a disconnect between the problem and the cause, because we don't want to admit to ourselves that we have created this catastrophe. To make that connection is tough. That's asking people to change the way they think. Which is tougher than asking people to change their light bulbs.

In your talks on the environment, you always mention your Aztec heritage and traditions, which you learned from your father. Explain what those are.

It's a really complex question; it's almost like trying to explain Christianity. The way I was raised, the Mashika people, the Aztec people of Mexico City, we share many of the same ideas and beliefs that Indigenous people around the world do: that sense of caretaking of the planet, that everything around us is a gift, and we have to protect it. That there's not one god, but everything around us has spirit, everything around us has an essence.

As soon as I could walk, I was learning the traditional dances, and as soon as I could talk I was learning the language, Nahuatl. Every dance was a different dance to honor a different spirit, every ceremony would open up calling to the four directions, letting them know that we were there because we were praying to them. It was a sense of beautiful, magical connection to the world around me. I looked at the mountains and the rivers and forests of Colorado and I saw that as my home. I belong to them more than they belong to me, which meant understanding that I had to protect them at any cost. That's where the activism came in.

We're tearing our world apart, destroying those things that make our world sacred. That thrust me into action. That passion told me there was nothing else that I could do but take action. It was a balance between what I got from my mother and what I got from my father.

Your mom, Tamara Roske, founded Earth Guardians in Hawaii in 1992. Was it a given that you'd become an activist?

My mother has been on the front lines of this movement for years. She's a warrior. I envy her ability to put everything aside and to fight for what's right. More than the activism, it's her power, her passion. A lot of kids don't have what I have. They didn't have the parents that I have, they didn't have the community that I have, the support that I have.

I learned so many valuable lessons from my mom that I could never have gotten anywhere else. Kids aren't raised thinking about how life can try to take us down, but that we can choose how to react to what people say and what people do. We choose our happiness, and true happiness is when we can truly accept everything that's going on, both good and bad, and deal with what we're given. I doubt many other children have been taught this. We don't have a lot – we're still struggling – but we do have a gift, a blessing. I never lose sight of that.

There's a school of thought that says the way we practice capitalism – this massive gorging consumption – is at the root of global warming.

We inherited this way of thinking from past generations: conquer the earth, take ownership of it, dominate it. Right now, the world doesn't see we're a part of nature, that when we cut down the rainforest or blow apart a mountain to get the coal inside, or when we drill the Arctic, that's tearing apart the only home we've got.

You're involved in using the public trust doctrine to fight climate change in the courts. Tell me about that.

I'm working with a group called Our Children's Trust on an effort to use atmospheric trust litigation. The public trust doctrine is a legal principle written a very long time ago and adopted and enforced by many states. It says that our natural resources – the air, the water, the earth – are to be protected for future generations, and it's the responsibility of leaders to do that. The climate is one of the most important resources – it belongs to no one and it affects everyone. So why don't we hold these leaders accountable for not protecting these resources? 

So they filed these lawsuits and got youth representatives, youth plaintiffs, in all 50 states to take their state and federal governments to court for not protecting the public trust doctrine. We've won on different pieces of the legal arguments in states including New Mexico and Washington. Now we're working on another effort that would declare a global state of emergency around climate change. So there's a lot of forward momentum that's changing the game and getting more and more young people involved legally. 

You write music and perform with your younger brother, Itzcuauhtli. You've inspired him to be an activist. In 2014, he launched the Climate Silence campaign where he went on a six-week talking strike.

It's a powerful campaign. He said, "The whole planet is talking about climate change, debating whether it's real or not, and world leaders are doing squat. What would happen if we just shut up? If we just went silent?" He went silent for 45 days and the world paid attention. He reached over a million people, got hundreds of thousands of them to take vows of silence for an hour, a day, a week. He's the most social 11-year-old I know, constantly talking to random people on the street or friends in the coffee shop, having long conversations with them. He started the petition to get world leaders to take action on climate change. Then he realized there aren't any true world leaders – they're failing at their jobs. We are the leaders, the people are the leaders. 

The UNFCC just chose your song, "Speak for the Trees," as a theme song for COP21. That's pretty incredible.

Music is a huge part of who I am, outside the activism. "Speak for the Trees" is off our new record, Generation RYSE. In the last couple of weeks, I was in the studio almost every day. I have a little setup where I produce beats, I make music and play keyboard. I've been working a lot of new stuff, continuing to play the piano and getting amazing artists to collaborate with. There's a lot on my summer to-do list.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I love Michael Franti – his older albums with Spearhead that were more radical, more lyrical. His old stuff was super inspiring. Tupac, Ludacris, Jurassic 5, Common. Nach from Spain is amazing, all his messages are pretty radical. I love Nahko Bear. I like to listen to a lot of conscious hip-hip – Akrobatik. I like a lot of EDM, trap. And modern hip-hop artists just for the music, for the beat, that are really good to dance to – Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West.

When we scheduled our original interview, you said you had dance practice.

I work on hip-hop dancing all the time, as much as I possibly can, incorporating chorography and stunts and all kinds of stuff into our show. I'm on a crew at a studio in my town. My best friend and I train together a lot. During the summer you have to work your butt off if you want to move up to the next crew level.

In developing your live performances, do you ever combine traditional Aztec dancing with hip-hop?

No. Aztec dancing is very different. It's very ceremonial, it's not entertainment. But I noticed that when I started picking up hip-hop, it was easier to pick up some of the dances. You know, picking up chorography that sticks in your brain.

After that insane week in Manhattan, do you have any desire to go on a talking strike, like your brother?

No, I wouldn't be able to survive.

Watch Martinez at home with his friends and family, talking about his passion for environmental activism and his Indigenous traditions, in this short film directed by Vanessa Black (a BLKFLM, ANCHOR LIGHT and Purpose production).