Rapper & Environmental Activist Xiuhtezcatl Works to Build a Better World

XIUHTEZCATL Martinez

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez talks about his new project, the meaning behind the cover art, flying to Portland for the Nike campaign, going viral on TikTok, goals, and more!

(AllHipHop Features) 

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez continues to make a difference in the world, any chance he gets. Not only does he bless the masses with meaningful, inspiring music, but he embodies the definition of an activist who is fighting for change and educating through his voice – exuding a constant reminder that it is up to our generation to reimagine our future.

Some of his biggest accomplishments to date include speaking at the UN at just 20-years-old, addressing the General Assembly, serving as a surrogate for the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, and receiving the United States Community Service Award from President Obama in 2013.

Now, he’s the face of Nike’s new Voices of Change holiday campaign.

Forever pushing the envelope in Hip-Hop and its culture, Xiuhtezcatl’s message and mission statement transcend generations, with an unwavering desire to honor his ancestors in the process.

Speaking multiple languages including Spanish, English, and his native tongue Nahuatl, the Colorado-born recording artist returns to unleash his newest EP titled “Runway Tapes.” The 7-track project highlights the movement and growth in his life over the past couple years, “fighting and organizing on the frontlines of movements to touring the country and playing shows worldwide.”

AllHipHop: What’s been up since the last time we spoke?

Xiuhtezcatl: It’s been a minute. It’s been good, I’ve been busy. Since I’ve been in LA, sessions till 4 in the morning. Meetings at 1 pm, had to drop off my ballot at UPS, overnight it so it can get back to Colorado. Tapping in with people, a bunch of cool new demos, working with different producers. It’s been mad fun.

AllHipHop: How has quarantine been treating you?

Xiuhtezcatl: It’s been interesting, a lot of creative incubation. Feels good to have this project out, excited to continue pushing the boundary working with different artists and different producers. Expanding the sound, more Latin-infused tracks. It’s all been fun.

AllHipHop: “Runway Tapes” out now! How are you feeling?

Xiuhtezcatl: Good, it’s hype. I’m happy. My project “Runway Tapes” really came together a month or 2 before we dropped it. We went to Portland to do this Nike project; they flew me out there. It’s tight. It dropped the other day. They asked me to do something for a minute and I always turned them down.

AllHipHop: Why?

Xiuhtezcatl: I’m hesitant to work with brands unless it’s the right opportunity, and this was it. They gave me and my team a lot of creative control to shape the narrative. I’m not saying “yo purchase this shoe, I’m a rapper.” I got to dive into the issues in the work that’s really relevant to me. It’s reflected in the mixtape. They licensed “Fuego” off the mixtape, one of the hottest tracks on that project (no pun intended). It was tight. Two in one, we shot the video for “El Cielo.” It all came together once the aesthetics were really clear in how we shot the video, the set we built, the fits. That’s where we shot the cover for the mixtape. We went from a random collection of B-sides to a project with the visuals. This Nike project too, the timing’s really good.

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AllHipHop: What was your reaction to seeing your face on Nike’s Voices of Change holiday campaign?

Xiuhtezcatl: Fire. Automatically when it dropped, so many people hit me up “bro, I can’t believe you’re in this.” That project’s the perfect combination of what I’ve been thinking about and what’s been present in my mind during this time. This political moment we’re in, the creative space I’ve been in with my music, the project synthesized a lot of what I’ve been thinking about. Looking at these human-made borders as a connective point for so many different issues in our culture, hip-hop has always been a tool to reflect those stories.

That’s the topics and issues we tackled in my video for “El Cielo.” That whole joint looked at migration and family separation; my experiences with that. After we dropped that video and the songs, so many people said “bro, my family’s from here. I’m from here, my parents came from here.” That story’s very specific to me, at the same time something lots of different folks could tap in with. The Nike piece elevated that story and narrative to another level.

AllHipHop: This is your first project in 2 years, why is that?

Xiuhtezcatl: The past couple years, I haven’t fully sat down and focused on my music. I have so many other projects: working with different brands, companies, organizations, within different causes. Running around doing live shows and touring, did 3 national live circuits opening up for other bands then started doing my own headline shows. In February I dropped a collaborative record with an LA artist named Tru, a really dope MC from Leimert Park/South Central. His family’s from Belize so he’s an indigenous Afro-Belize artist. I’ve got roots in Mexico. His people are Maya, my people are Aztec so the connection’s really tight. That record was really fun.

Now, I have this huge catalog of unreleased music, we’re starting to figure out what are the moves? What needs to be said right now? How do we reflect the music to really speak to the moment we’re in? This mixtape for me was a transitory introduction for my audience. People who’ve heard my older music and the records from the last album Voice Runners, this collaborative project was a good taste of what the new vibes are. The mixtape enforced this sonic transition, exploring having more bilingual songs, more songs tapping into that storytelling from my community, and my roots south of the border.

Hinting at where we’re going from here, it felt right. Even during the pandemic, I’ve been cooped up writing. No sessions, not getting in with people, not touring. A lot of me here with my microphone rig and my interface, playing guitar, experimenting, looping ukulele samples I recorded in my bedroom. Exploring in that way. These were all songs we had for a year that we’ve been sitting on. Time to start introducing people to this whole new chapter I’m super hyped about.

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AllHipHop: What’s the meaning behind the cover art? I know your eyes are crossed out.

Xiuhtezcatl: The project in itself really speaks on my experience with mobility, motion, movement. This transitory time in my life as a young man, entering the world as an artist in a different way than I’ve been presented before. Seeing the world as a creative in a lot of different facets. It speaks on the identities of people who have existed on the marginal story that haven’t been told. My art is grounded in not speaking for my people, but as one of my people from a very personal place. As an indigenous person, as a Mexika person of Mexican immigrants.

When we look at who’s seen or valued by our society, our community and our people are oftentimes so overlooked. The symbolism of the cover, that whole wall of photos behind me is all of these beautiful collages my mom made when my pops was in Mexico and I’d just been born. The whole story looks at who really gets to be seen, who gets to decide who matters in the world and in these moments. Our creative vision is really challenging people to look deeper than the preconceived notions of how people have seen me. People have seen me in a very specific way because I come from such a strong background of organizing, of climate justice, of activism of indigenous sovereignty work. Now, it’s challenging people to see things in a new way by transforming our sight and our vision, the way we look at things.

AllHipHop: What was your creative vision with the “El Cielo” visual?

Xiuhtezcatl: I was born in the States, born in Colorado. Straight away my fam moved us to Mexico, to Santa Cruz, Acalpixca in Xochimilco where my family still lives. Where my pops grew up, where my great grandmother was born and grew up. My people are indigenous from that region for as many generations back as we can remember. I have so many memories of being in Mexico at a very young age that shaped my personal identity, how I saw myself and how I saw my community.

I wanted to create these different worlds that existed both in my memories and in my mind, almost portals into different parts of my existence. We worked with this incredible, all Mexican team called Industry from Portland, really interesting to find that in Portland. They created the Nike campaign and wanted to help with this video. They built this incredible set with 3 different rooms in 24 hours with low budget, the 3 scenes in the video. They bodied it. They brought in dirt, earth, that metaphorical border visualized in walking between the different rooms. I wanted it to be very personal. The music video from a distance, you see “oh that’s beautiful, the lighting’s really dope. All the pieces on the altar look super fire.” Going deeper and deeper, every image on the wall in that second room is all different collages my mom made and gave to my pops 20 years ago. Within each one is so much meaning and story deeper than that. On the altar, there’s a centerpiece, a painting they recreated with a painting from my family’s household. From an image they took 18 years ago, that ended up being the cover photo for “El Cielo.” This old baby picture of me, my grandpa’s holding me.

The creative vision was really to build these spaces that represented my past, where I’m from, this spiritual world with the altar. Reflect it in a new way as we look at where my journey’s going here forward. Crossing borders, overcoming these adversities and obstacles, looking at my parents’ story of how love has overcome these human-made borders. It opens up the whole thing with this image of me as a 6-year-old kid speaking to an audience about the environment. So many people that recognize me know that video. “Oh yeah, you’re that little kid speaking out there at such a young age.” I wanted to disrupt that from the jump, go in and say “we’re entering a new phase.” I’m no longer this child the world has already seen me as.

AllHipHop: How was it having viral TikTok star DoggFace supporting the record? Are you even on TikTok?

Xiuhtezcatl: My team been bugging me, “yo bro, you gotta get on TikTok.” I’ve been peeping, but yet to make my proper entrance into that world. [laughs] Such an interesting space. It was crazy DoggFace did that, pretty cool. Right after he blew up doing that viral Fleetwood Mac longboarding piece, he did this TikTok over “El Cielo.” Really tight to see how he interpreted it. He’s singing the lyrics, put his little medicine bag on, burning some ganja. Really tight to see how his audience is very Latinx, a lot of Mexican folks follow him. I noticed how my streaming audience changed after he posted that; the top city became Mexico City.

It was tight, that‘s the right song to enter into that crowd. Start to crossover, get new folks’ eyes on these visuals and have their ears listening to this music. He shouted it out, the song performed really well. It’s been really beautiful to see how the audience is continuing to open up. I’m starting to move farther and farther away from just an American fanbase, and expand to other parts of the world. “Yo bro, I heard your song on that DoggFace TikTok. I f### with your s###. I like that record, I like the mixtape.” It built a cool bridge into a different audience I started tapping into, but took it to another level.

AllHipHop: 3 things you need in the studio?

Xiuhtezcatl: Low key, Throat Coat Tea. That’s the staple for me, keep my vocals nice and warm. If we’re doing an 8-hour session, I was in 8pm to 4am the other day, munchies in the middle of the session. I need to eat something. I’m on that vegan mac and cheese. I really need an engineer that I trust and can vibe with. You can go to the nicest studio in the world in Atlanta, New York, LA, and pay somebody to use a beautiful space. But if the engineer’s a stranger, you don’t really warm up to them really quickly, it’s less creative. Especially if you’re going by yourself, at least an engineer that’s really cool, easy to work with, and honest too. Part of me paying an engineer to work with me is getting feedback too, so it’s not just an echo chamber. I don’t f### with yes men, “yeah bro everything sounds fire.” I want people to challenge me and offer ideas.

AllHipHop: What can we expect from your forthcoming project?

Xiuhtezcatl: It’s going to be hot. Running Tapes, I had a lot of fun creating over the last year and half. We wrote a lot of songs for my first headline tour in Cali, the visuals. I enjoyed it but it’s still an EP to hold folks over. Remind people we’re cooking the full project, sonically more mature and developed. Everything from singing more to bridging out to new producers that can bring other elements to the project. My sound, my own sonic space within hip-hop will be clear to people. Blending things from traditional Latin music to pretty colonial indigenous instrumentation to trap and reggaeton.

I look at my influences from Manu Chao to Nathy Peluso, to Calle 13, those sounds and my creative environment will become really clear to folks on the next record. We’ll see more features, more visuals. I’m really excited for the visuals. Going back to Mexico and shooting really dope visuals. It’ll be a step up, continue to challenge myself until that project’s ready. We already have 13 demos for the next album. We’re already starting to level up and get ready for release for a 2021 drop. Really exciting. Voice Runners with me and Tru, we have VR2 on the way as well.

AllHipHop: Do you have any goals currently?

Xiuhtezcatl: Post-Covid 2022, whenever touring’s a proper thing, definitely a Latin American tour. Tapping in with the right artists, opening up for some people out there to take the music and really bring it back to the community that shaped my identity, that continues to infuse itself into the creative I put out. I’m really excited for that. Headlining Red Rocks. I’ve played at Red Rocks 3 times now with other artists, hopping on other friend’s sets. I grew up in Colorado, that’s a legendary venue. To sell that out would be really exciting.

Ultimate thing is creating a creative space strong enough for myself so I can do the work to go and build a platform to uplift other native artists, other young indigenous Chicano artists who have creative visions that are so powerful. I’m already starting to meet these youths all over the place. It’s not about my voice, it’s about the stories, the communities I’ve fought for my entire life. So many voices within those places need recognition, need a platform to continue to share that with the world. Whether that’s starting a label or a media company, down the road it’ll make itself clear to me. I definitely want to open up a space for other young artists to be put on.

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