In her performance of trans artist Anohni’s song “Another World” on her final album, Joan Baez sings, “I need another world, this one’s nearly gone.” Baez has long been a voice for other worlds, taking the side of the marginalized, the oppressed, the persecuted. When Dr. King spoke of his dream of a more just world at the March on Washington in 1963, she was there. Fifty years later, when Occupy Wall Street protesters chanted that “another world is possible,” she was there.
Art has a way of revealing unfamiliar worlds to us, of challenging us to expand our horizons. Whether performing covers or original compositions, Baez regularly invites us to inhabit the worlds of the downtrodden, to identify with the outcast. She becomes the voice of the voiceless, confronting us with the ethical demand of the Other, reminding us that we are always already in relation to and responsible for our fellow beings on a fundamental level.
Through her voice, we feel the desperation of the sex worker in the traditional “House of the Rising Sun.” We internalize the tragedy of the undeserving poor in Phil Ochs’ classic “There But For Fortune.” And we are inspired by the defiance of the political martyrs in her own “Here’s To You.”
The power of artists is that they are navigators and pioneers, pointing towards new north stars and guiding us out of the darkness. We think we know the darkness well; we see it every day in the headlines, after all. But we should remember that the darkness is also within us, in so many subtle ways. It’s there when we fail to recognize ourselves in the beggar and the prisoner, when we dehumanize the different, when we prioritize our own comfort over justice.
At times when the darkness can seem overwhelming, when we are tempted to give in to nihilism and defeatism, art reminds us of our inseparable interdependence, our mutuality, and our responsibilities to each other and to future generations. We need another world, alright, and we need radically empathetic artists like Joan Baez to help us get there.