Xiuhtezcatl Martinez often feels boxed into the identity of a young, indigenous climate activist. The fact that he's also an up-and-coming hip-hop artist with serious chops as a producer and MC tends to get overlooked.
But he says that's understandable — at least until his debut album drops this fall.
"I've put out so little musical content," he says. "As I put out more songs, I'm going to expect an increasing number of people to see me as an artist. If my flow still gets slept on, then I'll be pissed off."
Incredibly, at the age of 17, Martinez — who lives in Boulder, Colorado, and whose first name is pronounced shoo-tehz-caht — already has about a decade of experience in climate activism and community organizing. As a youth of Aztec heritage with a powerful gift for storytelling, he was thrust into the spotlight of the climate-change movement at 7 years old. Now, among other causes, he's one of 21 youths involved in the Juliana v. United States lawsuit, arguing that the Trump administration's actions that contribute to climate change violate young people's constitutional rights.
Martinez doesn't want to be forever cast as "the activist rapper," though he acknowledges his music career and work as an environmental advocate parallel and support each another. In fact, he began rapping to make his message more accessible to his peers.
"I'm headed into both worlds with as much fire and force as possible," he says. "I'm trying to make the greatest difference, reach the most people, and tell my story in the right way."
And there's no question he's reaching different demographics by addressing the United Nations and sharing music festival stages with the likes of Talib Kweli, Jurassic 5, and Flobots.
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"People come up to me after shows, and it's about 50/50," he says. "Half are like, 'Bro, that flow was, like, ridiculous.' The other half are like, 'Your message is on point.' I guess what I want to do is blend the two, and I don't want one to define the other. I'm in no way trying to separate myself from my activism, but I'm also showing the world this other side of me."
Martinez, along with Nahko and Medicine for the People, will perform at Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room this Saturday, March 17. Speaking from the road the day after a sold-out show in Brooklyn, he tells New Times his forthcoming album, Break Free, is an opportunity for him to relate his story. He's been interviewed hundreds of times over the past decade-plus, and he's wary of distorted representation in the media.
"I'm telling it myself through my music, my songs, my lyrics," he says. "I think that's why music is so powerful — the honesty, the authenticity, and vulnerability." For example, Martinez recently dropped the single "Blu Ink" (featuring Isa), which he describes as a "very vulnerable reflection of where life is taking me and the lessons I've learned."
A classically trained pianist, Martinez composed most of the beats on Break Free himself. He says the production quality is "really live, really poppin'." He began writing and recording the album in 2016, often working most productively on the road and between 1 and 5 a.m. During the creative process, he progressed so much as a songwriter and an MC that he scrapped about half the tracks and re-recorded them "with a stronger message."
Indeed, some of the songs are more message-driven than others. Fans can expect to hear "Young," a collaborative single with Nahko, sometime this month.
"It's all about the state of the youth — some of the difficulties of growing up in the world right now and how crazy shit is for us," he says of his forthcoming single. "Some really dope artists are hopping onboard and getting involved with this project. They're getting down with the message and getting involved, so I'm pretty stoked."
One of Martinez's main messages is especially relevant in Miami, one of the most world's most vulnerable cities in terms of sea-level rise. Martinez says our society needs to stop considering it as a purely environmental problem.
"We don't see climate change as a human issue as much as I think we should," he says. "The reason it's so scary is because it threatens our ability to sustain human life on Earth. It threatens food production; access to clean, potable water; national security. It disproportionately affects marginalized communities, women of color... It's not just bad for the environment; it's bad for human communities.
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"Looking at Miami, that's a community at the forefront of climate change," he continues. "It has a lot to lose."
Martinez emphasizes that climate change encompasses everything, but it's also personal. Everybody has their own reasons for not wanting to see the Magic City slip under the waves.
"I'm fighting for the things I love, which is the music, the culture, the art, the food, the people, the communities, the laughter, and the love," he says. "Those things that make a community beautiful, that's what's worth fighting for. If you love the Miami music and culture scene, that's what you should be fighting to protect."
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. Supporting Nahko and Medicine for the People. 7 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-564-1074; cultureroom.net. Tickets are sold out.