Photography Josué Rivas

xiuhtezcatl dropped the perfect soundtrack for indigenous peoples' day

The young activist/rapper discusses his debut album, 'Break Free' — and how he got Shailene Woodley to sing on it.

by Braudie Blais-Billie
08 October 2018, 3:43pm

Photography Josué Rivas

Since he was six years old, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has been an outspoken environmentalist. Born to an activist mother — she founded the conservation organization Earth Guardians in the 1990s — and an indigenous Mexican (Mashika) father, Xiuhtezcatl grew up entrenched in a fundamental love, respect, and responsibility for the earth. “I grew up hella involved in our spiritual, ceremonial ways and cultural practices,” he tells i-D. Before he could legally vote, Xiuhtezcatl addressed the United Nations, published a biography as the Youth Director of Earth Guardians, headed several conservation initiatives in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, and is currently involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the U.S. federal government over climate change. Somehow he found time to model for Acne Studios and Kenzo. Now 18, Xiuhtezcatl is also an emerging rapper with serious flow, and a hunger to prove himself as a musician with his new debut album Break Free.

For Xiuhtezcatl, music was always part of the action. He began rapping at 11 to spread political awareness amongst his peers with Earth Guardians, but didn’t start taking hip-hop seriously until he fell into a depression in 2015. “I’d taken a semester off [of school] to travel and do my work with Earth Guardians and speak all over the place, and I was very disconnected from my own voice in what I was doing with my activism work,” he says. “I didn’t feel empowered anymore.” Xiuhtezcatl was also falling in love, and took to writing a track that would eventually become Break Free’s “Blu Ink” to take control of his life. “Art was that compass that helped me find my way and navigate falling in love with this girl,” he explains. “That’s the turning point where I realized this music is so much more significant than just talking about political issues — this music is what is helping me stay afloat in this crazy, fucked-up world.”

Xiuhtezcatl wrote, composed, and produced most of Break Free himself, along with 19-year-old multi-instrumentalist Richard Vagner, Australian producer Jaii Cerff (who makes music as Xi-Tika), and engineer Brian David Harden. The 11-track LP is a lyric-heavy project with rich beats, the warm inflections of Vagner’s live strings, and the boldness of an album like Joey Bada$$’s All-Amerikkan Bada$$, which Xiuhtezcatl claims inspired him to push the album to its limit. True to his life’s work, Break Free delves into issues like climate change, police brutality, addiction, the marginalization of indigenous peoples, and his own identity as a Mashika descendent. It flows in and out of English, Spanish, and the native Central American tongue Nahuatl.

In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (Columbus Day who?), i-D caught up with Xiuhtezcatl to discuss his journey to Break Free.

On Break Free, you’re still advocating for the necessity of action and political empowerment. But this record allows you to become more personal — you get to flex a little about your accomplishments, while sharing your struggles with depression and the anxieties surrounding your future. What was it like to turn inwards for a change?
It was so healing. I found a way to be real with the world and share a side of myself that I never put out to the public in a creative way. And it gave me hope. The album was so important for my own self-discovery as an artist because of how it took me on this journey of understanding what it meant to record, to learn my vocals, to make my music. It was powerful, it was a fucking crazy process.

I've gotten to this point now where it's addicting and I’m writing all the time. We're going to start dropping new singles now that Break Free is out. I just put out a new single randomly on SoundCloud a couple days ago because I'm hungry to continue to fill in the blanks of my story and show people I can rap, too. Initially, I know there's going to be this sentiment, like, “Oh, this environmentalist kid who's also a rapper.” No. I want to make albums that people love to listen to.

Your album features indigenous voices like Nahko and Matene Skrikesfirst. Shailene Woodley — someone who has been an ally in fighting for indigenous rights, especially in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline — also appears on the track “Young” with Nahko. How did her contribution come about?
Getting [Shailene] on the track was really important. Nahko has been a friend of mine since 2012 and now he's like my big brother. We just finished our second tour together. I met Shai through Nahko, because they were dating for some time, and they're still close friends. When I started writing “Young,” I knew right away that I wanted Nahko on the track. And I was like, “Shai needs to also be on this track.” It's kind of completing the story of our friendship, the three of us, and recognizing the perspective and the story that she had to tell as a young woman. I know I wanted a female voice at the end to help bring the energy together.

I sent her the track with Nahko’s part in it. I had this other instrumental piece that I hadn't fit into the song, and so I looped it at the end. She wrote this beautiful poem to it. It was perfect timing. “Young” is a really intense song — it talks about a lot of different kinds of addiction and pain and friends of mine that I’ve lost to all kinds of things. She just brought it back to this hope of, yes, the suffering is so real for young people, but now it's time for healing. I was so grateful for her contribution on that.

In an essay you wrote for Teen Vogue, you said that you don’t want to categorize young people as “environmental activists,” but instead want them to recognize the power they have to make a difference. How does this redefinition of activism manifest in your music?
My music is the strongest example of me redefining my activism. It’s me literally breaking free from those traditional boundaries and boxes that we’re placed in. I’m gonna still fight for these movements that I believe in, but I don't have to do it by protesting and being an activist. I'm gonna do it with these verses that I write. I'm gonna do this with the shows that I play, the way I mobilize people when we turn up at a music festival. It's just reaching further. We are at a point in time where traditional activism isn't enough to address the severity of our crisis of the injustice.

We need systemic change, so we're going to need all players of society. That means we need activists, artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists. Everybody has a role to play and empowering people to play their role isn't about getting them to be activists, it's about getting them to look within. How are you inspired to engage in the world and how can we uplift your voice in that? Earth Guardians, the organization I've been working with since I was a little kid, that's our whole platform right now. We're working to transition from being an environmental movement to a cultural platform where we engage with people where they're at to fight for change.

In celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, who are some other indigenous individuals or communities that are inspiring you lately?
Standing Rock inspired a lot of different energy on the record. I rewrote “Break Free” three months before finishing the project because it wasn’t strong enough. I had to rewrite because of what was happening at Standing Rock and then Donald Trump's election. Indigenous resilience and indigenous resistance are two of the strongest themes in the project that I have held to my heart. As an indigenous person, it has shaped my resilience. Part of my vision and my path in life is to help revive my culture, language, and get us to a point where we can thrive and reclaim our land. The reclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a beautiful example of how we can celebrate that worldwide.

There are so many strong communities and individuals that I’ve seen. One that inspires me the most is the Māori people of New Zealand. They have TV channels and radio stations that are all in the Māori language, and they have universities where you can get degrees in Māori medicine. As a kid who comes from a tribe that has no federal recognition and no reservation or central community grounding point, I always spent so much time growing up on other reservations and with other Native communities because I felt drawn to that energy. And to see an entire country where it's mandatory to teach Māori to the students in most of the schools, that inspires me so much. That's on some Wakanda shit.

Moving forward, what can we expect from you in the near future?
I've been on two tours now, and I’m gearing up for my third tour where I’ll be opening for SOJA with Twiddle and Collie Buddz. I’m playing some festivals next year, including Envision Festival in Costa Rica. I’m going to build some incredible partnerships with different Native artists to put out different lines of merch for the new album.

Now that the album's been done for three months, I already have my second album lined up and ready to go. The follow-up is a collaborative project between myself and one of my greatest artist inspirations and closest friends, TRU. He's an artist from Leimert Park in Los Angeles that I met through my friend Raury. We met in the studio one time and in four days we crafted nine demos for the project. I really slow it down, too. It's such a different flow and vibe. I'm hella excited about that. We're gonna be dropping that early 2019. It's gonna be fucking incredible, I'm so excited about that project and touring that project. I just have this crazy vision of where I want to go and I'm really excited more than ever to pursue the music as a form of this.

Shailene Woodley
Dakota pipeline
break free
Indigenous Peoples Day