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Interviews

Partying with a purpose: This 18-year-old hip-hop artist is awakening a new generation of climate warriors


In advance of the release of his new album, "Break Free," and the impending #YouthvGov climate change lawsuit, for which he serves as a lead plaintiff, The Regeneration Magazine spoke with Xiuhtezcatl about the nexus of music, politics, environmentalism and community engagement.
Partying with a purpose: This 18-year-old hip-hop artist is awakening a new generation of climate warriors

Note from the editor: The founders of this magazine have a bit of an obsession with Bassnectar, a collaborative music and art project headed by DJ and producer Lorin Ashton, having attended several dozen shows together over the last decade. This past winter, at a New Year’s Eve set in Atlanta, Georgia, Bassnectar surprised the audience by inviting then 17-year-old indigenous activist Xiuhtezcatl (shoo-tez-caht) onto the stage. "The corporate agenda that overtakes our right to live and breathe is something that we need to stand against, so I want to hand the mic over to Xiuhtezcatl," Ashton said. And so, with lights flashing and thunderous bass loops whomping in the background (or at least it seemed), Xiuhtezcatl began to talk.

Make sure to check out his new album.

"Look at everything that's happened in the last year ... We look at the destruction and the oppression. We look at Flint, Michigan. We look back at Standing Rock and the police brutality. We look at ice caps melting and sea levels rising. Those are issues that are real right now ... This is not about politics, this is not about money, this is not about political party. This is about the future of the planet that we will pass on to the next generation."

"This is not about politics, this is not about money, this is not about political party. This is about the future of the planet that we will pass on to the next generation."

Tough luck for those who ‘just came for the music.’ Xiuhtezcatl reared the lackadaisical crowd’s energy in with style and grace. In an instant, thousands of carefree minds were acutely attuned to the message from the stage.

"We have a responsibility, each and every one of us, to fight for change in our lives every day ... Whether you are an artist or a DJ or a Lyft driver or a bartender, whatever it is that you do, bring these ideas of fighting for change into our lives. The world needs it ... Every single day the actions you take can influence the world around you ... This is the year that we take back the power, with our music, with our voice, with our passion, for every generation to come,” he continued, poetically and with confidence.

The audience roared. In a sensory-overloaded environment — intense visuals, immersive sound, thousands of bodies, hundreds of LED lights, puddles of sweat, eyeball-rattling bass — it's rare to feel more than the energy of the music and the crowd. But on that night, the audience collectively experienced something rare: the impulse to make a change. Call it partying with a purpose.

We realized right away that we had to get Xiuhtezcatl in Issue No. 4. Who is this guy, what makes him special, how has he earned a place on a major stage at such a young age? And why does he think music has the power to create and sustain positive social and environmental change? Xiuhtezcatl was ready to answer those questions, and more:

Davis Burroughs: How did the collaboration with the Bassnectar team come to be?

Xiuhtezcatl: Lorin’s manager hit me up via email expressing interest in working together. Lorin is a pretty conscious dude and has his eyes open in a lot of different worlds surrounding the climate and environmental crisis movements, and he's worked with different people using his platform to uplift stories of different leaders. 'Cause you've got to recognize that as artists we have such a powerful impact with our platforms and with our audiences. It was a really powerful experience to come out there.

Yeah.

So intense. It's insane how dedicated his fans are too. And I felt that there was a lot of really good receptive energy, because me and him vibe so well. He's got big brother vibes, for sure.

Had you met [Lorin] before?

No. No, we talked over the phone a couple times.

He introduced you as his "most inspiring person." I gotta imagine that's an honor.

That definitely was an honor, just to be recognized and seen. It's just beautiful to [make] partnerships and collaborations like that with people.

So Bassnectar’s project began as a true blend of music and activism. Not just through lyrics — Bassnectar would actually organize political rallies and meetings around his shows. But as he became more popular, he started to shy away from that model. And I actually recall an interview he did where he said that he came to feel that music wasn't the most effective platform to mobilize audiences on a political level. It wasn't until these last few years that he began to really incorporate activism into his music and performances again.

But you've been doing this for 12 years without pause. You've been making music to educate your listeners and encourage them to take action within their own lives. What's your view on the effectiveness of using music as a platform to drive change?

I've been making music since I was 7. I started playing keys and making beats and writing raps. The whole reason I started making music initially was as a way to talk about environmental issues and a way to change the platform and change the medium. And it turned into a passion of mine. I fell in love with creating art. I fell in love with playing live and performing.       

Being involved in the activist community and the climate justice space for so long, there's only a certain number of people you're gonna reach by giving TED Talks, speeches and keynote talks to the United Nations on climate change. There is such great urgency around the crisis that we face, and that gives us the responsibility to dig deeper and reach further than we traditionally have with these movements. And that means recognizing and utilizing the platforms of art, of music, of entrepreneurship, of tech, of fashion, all these different modes. And for me, like music was the one.

You know, when people come together at a concert, their hearts are open. Ya know?

Yeah.

And, when you can hit them with the flow and with the message, that's another thing. You have to be a really talented entertainer if you want to keep people's attention at all.

'Cause if you're just up there, you know, rapping, and it's all about the message, then you ain't got the skill and people aren't going to listen. So, you have to balance the development of the skill and of the brand and of the art in balance with the message, and that's what artists like Kendrick Lamar and Joey BadA$$ and J. Cole have done so well.

That's an interesting point. A lot of the distribution of climate change information tends to be isolated to the academic or political communities. As a result, I think many people feel like they're not really involved or connected to the process. And the movement has been criticized for being too exclusive or elitist in that regard. Yeah, totally agree with you that it's good to use music to bring it out to a new audience, especially when the folks attending the shows are gonna be receptive to the message if it's delivered well.

Yeah, fully. It's all about delivery.

On that note, can you think of any specific examples where you've performed a piece of music or someone has listened to one of your songs or poems or raps and then told you that they actually went and took action on whatever it is you were urging them to do?

Dude. The craziest example of that ever was like 2013 with the song called "What the Frack," talking about natural gas extraction in Colorado. We played a show at a music festival, called the ARISE Festival, and this guy afterwards, he was like, "Yo, I have like 50 acres of land in rural Colorado that I was getting bids from different natural gas companies to come and drill my land. And I was going to sell them my land. And now that I heard you guys perform, I'm literally gonna totally reutilize that land for like organic agriculture and not going to sell it to these big companies.”

That was crazy, really wild, and I was like 13 at the time too. That’s when I just really started making music, and that impact was crazy powerful. I'm on tour right now, playing shows in cities all over the world. And I'm opening for my bro Nahko and Medicine for the People — an incredible band that has such a very aligned message and mission with their art. And when people come up to the show, like, "Yo, we came here for this message; we came to hear you and your band," it's crazy to just see the impact. At all of our shows you see people in tears in the audience, and you see people just like smiling and celebrating and dancing and laughing. And it's like this wide variety of just emotion that is conveyed through the art.

People feel, 'cause there's such deep energy and emotion put into every song we write and perform. And when you see the audience feeling that, it's really powerful.

Do you see a trend in the music industry of artists shifting toward a model of using their platforms for more than just music and fame, to initiate real change? Or do you think that's still kind of a niche practice right now?

Yeah, I mean, it's not nearly as big as it could be. But I feel like there's a growing wave of artists that recognize their platform is so much bigger than the music, so much bigger than just performing, you know?

There's a lot of depth, I think, to what artists have to offer to the world. I see more and more awakening all the time, and it's really exciting.

And hip-hop is a very political space. I think it always has been and continues to be. And I think just that, more and more, the mainstream is catching on, you know? 'Cause there's so much hip-hop that is political and has always been political. It embodies that a lot. Artists like Quality and Mos Def ... A lot of these old-school artists are bringing that back to the mainstream. That's what the wave is right now.

Shifting away from music for a sec, you've been an activist since you were about 6 years old. Is that right?

Yes, sir.

And so, I'm generalizing here, but I'm gonna guess that most children, certainly preteens, feel like they don't have much of a voice in these larger issues. So what made that different for you?

Yeah, man. It was all about how I was raised, for sure. 'Cause I look at all the 6-year-old kids now and think, how the hell was I doing that when I was 6? You know, really confused.

I can imagine that’s perplexing.

It came from a space that was like mad amounts of nurturing of my spirit and of my personal identity as a youth. It's more than being indigenous, I owe a lot of those teachings to my grandparents and just the paths that they walked having developed sustainable communities here in New Mexico.

And my mother having been very involved with environmental and justice movements in a really crazy powerful way. I just grew up surrounded by that, nature and my connection to my culture, and my father. They gave me just a strong sense of community, that we recognize that as an indigenous person, I have a responsibility to protect my land, my culture and my water. The identity piece was really huge, 'cause I saw myself as a part of something so much bigger.

One of your most notable projects is being one of the lead plaintiffs in the Youth v. Gov. lawsuit on climate change. How did you go about getting that started, and what's the status of that lawsuit now?

Yeah, man. I'm one of 21 youth plaintiffs that are suing the federal government for the violation of our constitutional rights of life, liberty and property for failure to act on climate change, and for the direct infringement upon those rights and support for the very industries that helped create this crisis.

It began in 2016 in the Obama administration and then transferred over to Trump. We have been fighting in the courts against motions to dismiss and various different legal motions that have been brought forth to our case from the Trump administration in efforts to stall the lawsuit, like removing factual evidence from the hearing and efforts to remove our access to expert witnesses, and in efforts to make it so that the plaintiffs can't testify. Doing all kinds of crazy shit like that. The Trump administration has really been trying to hijack it.

Because what happened is that the motion to dismiss was denied, and we were granted our trial date in court, Oct. 28. So for the last three months since we've been granted our trial date, the Trump administration has tried to really delay that and to still get it thrown out, even though the judges on the panel that are making the decisions in the 9th District have ruled in our favor and are continuing to rule in our favor. So the current status is that we are full steam ahead, going forth, regardless of the attempts to thwart our efforts.

And we’re going to be going to trial on Oct. 28. And what we're demanding is a climate recovery plan that we've worked with top climate scientists to create to be implemented nationwide. To massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to regulate fossil fuel corporations and to massively reforest and plant trees, all kinds of efforts and energy in that way.

Editor's Note: For the latest updates on the #YouthvGov lawsuit, visit the news section of the organizing group's website.

So I assume you have a legal team that you're working with?

Yeah, we got an incredible volunteer legal team that is doing amazing work.

It's all volunteer?

A lot of the work is volunteer. We're working with a nonprofit organization, called Our Children's Trust. There are paid attorneys helping, too.

Got it. We’ve got time for just one more question. If you could tell our readers just one thing, one message, what would that be?

We're on time. Now is the perfect time to be alive. You know? Now is the perfect time to be a human being in the world. There's massive adversity and disparity and crisis worldwide, and all of that is opportunity for us to play our part to help heal the planet.

We're on time. Now is the perfect time to be alive. You know? Now is the perfect time to be a human being in the world. There's massive adversity and disparity and crisis worldwide, and all of that is opportunity for us to play our part to help heal the planet.

It's not about activism, it's not about protest and it's not about being an environmentalist. It's about recognizing that as humanity, we have a role to play in helping to preserve this planet for generations to come. It’s about everything we love about this world. This is a movement founded in love. And recognize, remember those things you love, whether it's time with family, memories, concerts you've been to. You know, music, food, culture, that is what we are fighting to protect. And I'm 18 years old, and I've been doing this since I was six.

These last 12 years of my life have been a never-ending journey and battle for what we love. And you don't have dedicate your whole life to it, but you do have to play your part. Whether that's as a journalist or as a student or a teacher or a parent raising your children. Just get a little uncomfortable and sacrifice a little bit more. ‘Cause at the end of the day, we have a really beautiful opportunity to turn things around massively, and it's very exciting.

I'm incredibly inspired and excited to be a part and amongst this generation, because I see it. Youth today are gonna shape the world for many generations to come.

Awesome. We’re excited to have you involved, Xiuhtezcatl, thank you so much. I hope we get to meet you someday, man. Much love.

Let's do it, bro! We'll be touring all over the place, so when we come through town shoot me a message.

Cool, sounds good.

Blessings bro, keep up the good work.

Alright, take it easy, you too.

'Preciate you.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. We'll be chatting with Xiuhtezcatl again after the trial on Oct. 28 and publishing the story in Issue No. 4 of the Regeneration Magazine. Purchase one of our subscriptions to reserve your copy and receive a free, regenerative gift from one of our partners. 

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