You may know Xiuhtezcatl Martinez as one of the teens suing the U.S. government for failing to take action on the climate crisis. By the age of 14, Xiuhtezcatl — pronounced “shoe-tez-caht” —addressed the United Nations on environmental policy in English, Spanish, and the Aztec language Nahuatl, his native tongue. As youth leader of activist group Earth Guardians, he joined thousands in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, and released a guide to movement building titled We Rise. Now, the 18-year-old has just issued yet another statement of resistance: His very first full-length hip-hop album, Break Free.
Released in October, the album examines the plight of a generation faced with systemic injustice, police brutality and environmental degradation. Xiuhtezcatl produced the LP with help from multi-platinum producer Brian Hardin, who has also produced albums by India Arie, Quincy Jones and Guns N’ Roses. “‘Magic’ is one of the first songs I wrote for Break Free,” Xiuhtezcatl tells Rolling Stone. “It’s a song about the reality of our world but also about the resilience of peoples. The journey of the despair and hopelessness of a collapsing world to the reclamation of that magic. The building of our legacy.”
Underpinned by a Nineties-tinged palette of 808s and piano asides — plus R&B vocals by the artist’s sister, Isa Martinez — Xiuhtezcatl exchanges reflective verses with Los Angeles rapper-producer Tru. Directed by Josué Rivas, the video for “Magic” cuts between dramatic clips of desert and cityscapes, to scenes from Hollywood and the faces of its real-life denizens. There, the two young MCs wander the star-studded City of Dreams in search of signs of hope — and of course, some fresh looks.
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“My father taught me to see the magic in everything,” says Xiuhtezcatl. “Growing up, magic was in the sunrise and the rainfall. In every expression of life, no matter how small. I think that that was one of the most valuable wisdom that shaped who I was as a young boy. It gave me the perspective to see what was behind the dysfunction of our society, of our broken world, our dying ecosystems and corrupt leaders.
“I often feel far away and lose sight of that magic,” he continues. “I felt it driving through Skid Row the first day we were scouting sites for the video. That surface-level perception in the minds of everyone driving by in a car. Our worlds separated by a glass window and a metal door. We came back the next day and broke bread with the community, with guidance from a brother [who] lived there. Those interactions dissolved those barriers. Seeing the passion, and love, the struggle and hope in the eyes of the people reminded me of the presence of that magic my father spoke of.”
Xiuhtezcatl is currently on tour in the United States. Break Free is out now on all streaming services.