INTERVIEW BY REBECCA NAGLE
Musician and climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez first spoke up about climate change when he was six-years old. Today, through a new wave of hip-hop and his activism, he works to bring other young people into the fold in the fight for a just and stable climate. In an interview with Cherokee advocate and writer Rebecca Nagle, via Zoom, Martinez speaks about how Indigenous climate activism is about cultural survival, the need to build a multiracial climate movement, and how rising generations give him hope.
In 2015, I remember seeing headlines that 21 young people were suing the United States government for its inaction on climate change. The youth argued the pending climate catastrophe violated their constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The litigation was groundbreaking. Three years later, my friend invited me to a concert in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the featured acts was an Indigenous hip-hop artist whose music had caught my attention on social media for its lyrics grounded in movement building and resiliency. During the show, the artist took the mic to talk about the importance of addressing climate change. He told the story of how he and other young people were suing the United States. I was amazed it was the same person.
That’s how Xiuhtezcatl Martinez’s work unfolds. His advocacy spans so many spaces and genres you may run into it in the news, in the courtroom, at the United Nations, in art and music, and even on the streets. Xiuhtezcatl first spoke up about climate change when he was six years old. He addressed the United Nations—for the first time—at age of 15. Today, as the youth director of Earth Guardians, he works to bring other young people into the fold, leading by example.
While Xiuhtezcatl’s work warns of the pending crisis of climate change, we spoke while the country was already embroiled in crisis: the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism. Our conversation took place in the context of the coronavirus already claiming more than 100,000 lives in the United States and mounting international protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd.
From his home in Philadelphia, Martinez spoke about the need to build a multiracial movement for climate justice and how rising generations give him hope.
As an Indigenous climate activist, you bring an Indigenous perspective to the fight to prevent the worst consequences of global warming. How does being Aztec influence your activism?
My work as a climate activist… it’s about cultural survival. In my identity as a Mexica man, as as Indigenous man through my father’s lineage, I think I see this work in different ways than many of my peers in the climate movement. I think the work to preserve and protect our land, our water, our ways is just inherently woven into Indigenous teachings and culture.
A lot of us who are younger millennials, Generation Z—and even younger than that—often support progressive measures like the Green New Deal because we have the most at stake when it comes to the consequences of not addressing climate change. Over and over again, across the globe, we see young people at the front of this movement. Why do you think that is?
We have everything to lose. Everything is at stake for us. And I think it’s a combination of this very dire urgency that we experience and also a really powerful hopefulness.
I think that’s why I think our generation is better equipped to deal with the intersections of movements than past generations. And even as an Indigenous person, we’re confronting a lot of anti-blackness in Indigenous communities. And in Mexican communities, too.
Now is a really opportune moment for the younger generation to take the wisdom, the knowledge, the culture, the work that was passed down to us and leave behind everything that doesn’t serve us.
Everything is coming crashing down on us. We’re seeing that capitalism is not functioning. And it was never designed or built to serve the people. The policing system is designed to protect capital, to protect property. And so now, all of that is being challenged.
It’s so hard for people to think about societies without the police.
The United States is such a young country but many people are very, very entrenched in these colonial ways. And it’s the same thing with the climate crisis. Why would you limit yourself to the belief that we need to rely on fossil fuels? And even when we talk about solutions, why would we limit ourselves to only looking at market-based solutions?
We need to absolutely transform every facet of our society. And that scale of imagination and really putting frontlines communities at the center of benefiting from the solutions is how to solve these crises.
Why would you limit yourself to the belief that we need to rely on fossil fuels? … Why would we limit ourselves to only looking at market-based solutions?
We’re having this conversation right now in the context of—literally at this moment—thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, marching in the streets to protest the police killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor… In your activism, you’ve spoken about how environmental racism disproportionately impacts communities of color. Can you speak specifically about how anti-Black racism shows up in climate justice and how Black communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change?
There’s all kinds of crazy studies around how specifically Black communities are exposed to such high levels of contamination and air pollutants compared to their carbon footprint. The different hurricanes that have hit since the early 2000s—the lives that are already being lost and put on the line every single day by the climate crisis—those are Black and Brown bodies.
We see lower representation of Black leaders in environmental spaces, because, if you look back to the foundation of a lot of traditional environmental movements, they were just inherently racist. They were inherently anti-Black. And so there’s a lot of reclamation to do and a lot of healing to do to bring our relatives back into these spaces. We need Black leadership at the forefront of these conversations.
We know that the environmental movement does have this perception that it’s White, but we also know that that’s not true. Could you talk about the work that communities of color are already doing to prevent climate change?
It is absolutely false that the climate movement, the environmental movement is a white space. I think especially right now, the moments we see highly popularized in mainstream culture often come from white voices—whether it be Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio or Greta Thunberg. But in reality, the work that is being done on the ground—the transformative work—is rooted in racial justice. It’s rooted in these deeply powerful movements: the Civil Rights Movement and the American Indian Movement.
You’ve joined two lawsuits suing the government about its inaction on climate change, which has been a new legal territory for the climate movement. Tell me about those lawsuits. What is the legal precedent that you are using and what are you hoping to accomplish?
The most significant lawsuit that I’ve been a part of is the Juliana v. United States. It was filed in 2015 by myself and 20 other young plaintiffs from around the country. Every kid has their own story about the direct impacts from the climate crisis that we’re experiencing. And that’s put together with this legal framework saying that the government’s not only inaction on climate change, but direct investment in the fossil fuel industry, has led to the degradation of our climate system. And that it’s in direct violation of our constitutional rights as young Americans. And that was pretty unprecedented.
The whole journey towards our trial date—time and time again—panels of justices are ruling in our favor, essentially delivering these groundbreaking arguments in the case, saying, Yes, these kids do have a constitutional right to life, liberty and property—to a stable, healthy climate.
You’re pushing for this issue not just in the courts, but also through music. When it comes to movement building, what role do you see art and music playing?
I was just listening to Gil Scott-Heron the other day, who was one of the architects of hip-hop. And just the power in Gil Scott’s poetry… Artists tell the stories of the people. They are the ones truly representing the times and the moments that we are in.
Me and my boy Tru, we worked together to make this record called Voice Runners. We wrote the album and produced it in eight sessions. We were talking about ancestral knowledge and carrying that through our music, talking about social injustices, the movements that we’ve been a part of. That whole album was held together by our inspiration of being on the streets with people—by being young young men in this protest.
With the climate crisis, a lot of people feel paralysis. It’s such a huge, huge problem. What can we even do? I don’t know if hope is necessarily the right word, when what we really need in this moment is action. What keeps you going? What keeps you working towards systemic change when we know how hard that is to achieve?
I see so much hope from the young people that are coming out right now. People are pissed off. People are channeling their anger. Even just talking to my friends, their friends are hitting them up who have never organized. And they’re like, It’s time; you were right. We’re ready. We’re ready to go out there and do the work.
The crisis is so just insurmountably massive. And the work that needs to be done is so deep. I’m beginning to reframe the work within myself and really recognizing that it starts at home. I don’t know how to explain a lot of it. Just, when I’m on the land, when I’m out on the land—that gives me a lot of hope. I’m like, Okay, maybe we got this.