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Xiuhtezcatl on activism and art

‘It’s about using art to change systems, challenge narratives and tell new stories’: the environmental activist and hip-hop artist talks community, culture and collective liberation.


Xiuhtezcatl (Image: Josué Rivas/Indígena).

Environmental activist and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced ‘shoe-TEZ-caht’) was six years old when he first gave a public talk about the environment. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, he had activist parents to look to as role models: his father, who is of the Indigenous Mexica population of central Mexico, worked in advocacy, while his American mother founded environmental organisation Earth Guardians in 1992.

From an early age, Xiuhtezcatl travelled between the States and Mexico with his family, spending time with different Indigenous communities, and ‘trying to be grounded in our own cultural heritage as Indigenous people from the south,’ he explains, ‘while building kinship with folks up here in the north.’ It was fertile soil on which his connection to the Earth flourished. ‘I grew up in a household where there was an emphasis on our culture, our heritage and on environmental justice, and on looking at those issues as intrinsically connected to the way we live our lives,’ he adds. ‘It was a different way of seeing the world.’

Now almost 21 years old, those values continue to underpin everything Xiuhtezcatl does. Until recently, he served as Youth Director of Earth Guardians, before he made the decision to branch out independently. Now, he travels extensively from his base in Portland, addressing the world’s most powerful policymakers at UN summits, delivering his dynamic rhymes to audiences from Australia to Costa Rica, and doing everything in his power to fight the climate crisis.

To mark Earth Day, we spoke to Xiuhtezcatl about the intersection of advocacy and artistry, the power of collective liberation, style, hip-hop, and more besides.

‘The climate crisis is real today. It’s not some abstract future that’s wrought with wildfires, and natural disasters.’

‘The conversation around the climate crisis has been fit into a very particular narrative. It’s painted as an environmental issue, an energy issue, but that fails to speak on the depth of how complex and interrelated the climate crisis is with human issues. It’s not just about having a scientific education, though there is that element. It’s important to have a cultural education, too – one that’s grounded in the material impacts of this crisis, and how it’s affecting people and communities. I grew up around this idea that “we’re doing this to protect future generations” – and I’ve bought into that idea, but the climate crisis is real today. It’s not some abstract future that’s wrought with storms and wildfires and tsunamis and natural disasters. There are material impacts of it that are manifesting in communities all over the place, right now – specifically, poor Black or Brown and Indigenous communities.’

‘As Indigenous people, we defend our communities and our land, because that’s what we’ve been doing since colonisation. The pipelines being built through our homelands, or resource extraction happening in our communities, that’s all a continuation of colonialism. It’s not just the climate crisis or the fossil fuel industry that’s threatening our homes – it’s these systems we’ve been combating for generations, manifesting in a new way. We have to build solidarity and strength within our own communities, by elevating those around us. Because for us, our cultural survival hinges on us addressing the climate crisis. I think being grounded in the present reality and material impact of this is really important. That’s something that the larger climate narrative lacks, oftentimes, because Indigenous voices and Black voices aren’t centred in these conversations.’

‘We don’t do any of this in a vacuum. It’s incredibly complex and interconnected. Often we get attached to the idea that individual actions and choices will transform things. It’s important to broaden your scope, because the environmental movement grounds itself in narrow ideas, capitalist reforms – changing small things within industries or encouraging folks to consume certain products. The veneer of sustainability. Oftentimes it’s not actually backed by science, or it doesn’t materially benefit the communities who experience the climate crisis every single day. Listen to a variety of voices, not just brands that are selling metal straws and sustainable jeans. Every element of this conversation needs to continue to be challenged and opened up.’

Xiuhtezcatl performs at the New York Climate Strike in 2019 (Image: Josué Rivas).

‘I’ve been playing shows, touring and seeing the world through the lens of hip-hop and music. I really fell in love with the culture, and with the ways artists have used hip-hop. It’s such a beautiful and powerful way to communicate and uplift our communities and their stories, to go deeper. People feel a lot when they listen to music. It’s a big responsibility, but I’m excited to wield a piece of that. It’s about using art to change systems, challenge narratives and tell new stories. There’s a really bright future for Indigenous artists. I see so many of my peers, who I’m so inspired by, rising up and transforming the spaces of media, of music, of entertainment.’

‘Style, for me, is an extension of how I express myself. I don’t buy any new clothes. I thrift. I try to keep it as local and as native as possible, uplifting Black and Brown businesses. Clothing can be stuff that we wear, but it can also be something that influences the shape of culture. I see a powerful relationship between our artistry, the way we use our voices, and the clothes we wear.’

‘Clothing shapes culture. I see a powerful relationship between our artistry, the way we use our voices, and the clothes we wear.’

‘The responsibility that the fashion industry has is enormous. It’s so easy for brands to align themselves publicly with social causes, whether it’s sustainability or Black Lives Matter. What I look forward to is seeing brands do the deep work that doesn't get publicised. It doesn’t help polish that image, but it’s the nitty gritty that you have to do along the way. More and more, people are going to see through the veneer of woke brands pushing a certain image. They are going to start looking at, what are the practices? How do you treat your employees? How is this stuff produced? What are the materials? How do you show up for the communities that you interact with?’

‘For me, the most valuable thing in my work in this space has been connecting to the community, and knowing that this isn’t on you alone to fix. Reach out to those around you, who believe in you and the cause, whether it’s environmental, social justice, or beyond that. Tap in with other folks who are on that wave, and who will learn with you, grow with you and challenge you. I think that’s really important, whether you’re doing work to defend our relatives in the LGBTQ community, or for environmental justice, or Indigenous sovereignty. Whatever space you’re working in, the more you can ground yourself in community and other folks, the more you can see how connected these conversations are to one another, and why that solidarity is really important.’

Words by Maisie Skidmore

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