Joan Baez at NYU in Prague
Making a guest appearance at a New York University in Prague 'Modern Dissent' class, the American folk singer talks protest and meditation
Stillness falls over the Masaryk classroom, stirred only by the sound of deep breathing and the faint clang of a hammer out the window, which now seems miles away.
Joan Baez's voice rings out into the calm, "Just focus on the air in your chest and every distraction will go away." She opens her eyes and smiles. "For those who practice meditation – there's nothing you can do to get them derailed."
After a 50-year-long career as a singer and justice activist, American folk artist Joan Baez knows that sometimes a meditation break is just what a person needs -- even if it comes in the middle of a talk that you're giving to a group of 20-somethings in Prague. Invited by friend and NYU professor Jan Urban for some "storytelling" to his Modern Dissent class April 5, she capitalized on a lull in her own conversation to lead 20 students in a moment of self-reflection.
Baez, in Prague to finish a European tour, requested to speak to the class about what it means to be a dissident according to Urban, who had discussed her in his lectures on the movement to free Czechoslovakia from Communist rule. Baez led an enormously successful concert-turned-anti-Communist rally in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia, in June 1989.
After playing several songs, to the horror of the concert organizers and secret police present in the audience, Baez dedicated the song Farewell Angelina to dissident leader Václav Havel and the Charter 77 human rights group that was persecuted by the Communist regime. She then invited dissident singer-songwriter Ivan Hoffman to the stage, he sang a few lines of an anti-Communist song, and then the secret police cut the whole audio system.
Havel, who became Czechoslovakia's first post-Communist president, named the concert as one of the pivotal moments for the cause of Charter 77 in a 1990 interview.
"When I talk about the high spots of my life, Bratislava usually comes up," Baez says with a smile.
Urban, a leader of the dissident movement, remembers the event as well and because of it considers Baez one of his personal heroes. "She did not need to do that, being famous and old enough not to care," he said of Baez, then 48 years old. "Showing young people in the concerts that barriers could be broken was a constant source of hope."
Even today, 18 years after that evening, Joan Baez is still inspiring potential young dissidents with hope.
"We are currently at a time where it's very difficult to feel like you've done something instead of just shouted down an empty well," she said of those who would try to change the world. "I would encourage you to do it anyway."
Baez referred to the 1960s in the US as the "perfect storm" where politics and culture collided to make a huge and successful dissident movement possible. That environment does not exist today, but there were still lots of opportunities to counter injustice, she observed.
Kat Bache, a junior in Urban's class who has respected Baez as an artist and dissident since childhood and attended her concert in Prague earlier in the week was particularly motivated. "I liked the encouragement that she gave," Bache said, "how even between movements, we're still building something. It makes me feel like anything I do will be worthwhile eventually."
The best advice Baez said she could give was to encourage a commitment to nonviolence, and the bravery to act against injustice, no matter how unlikely it may seem. "If you have two friends at school who think the same way you do, get with them and find a fourth," she said.
Emily Claypool, a second-year student at NYU, had never heard of Baez before Urban played Slovak TV footage of the 1989 Bratislava concert in class the day before the singer's guest appearance.
Claypool has no plans to take part in an act of civil disobedience but she was still inspired by Baez. "I don't know that I have the kind of passion that she does, but if I did, knowing that it is possible to enact change if you gang up with like-minded people is a good starting point, I think," Claypool said.
Baez kept her promise of storytelling, peppering advice with tales of taking her dissidence on the road with her guitar as a "knee-jerk reaction to go wherever we were called."
Baez is famous in the US for her 1970s songs Diamonds & Rust and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, as well as moving renditions of Blowing in the Wind and We Shall Overcome.
She was a key figure opposing the Vietnam War and an earlier advocate of the Civil Rights movement. She has also campaigned for peace in the Middle East.
Today, at 66 years old she says finally she "is learning how to be part of a family" -- involved in the life of her son and mother -- after a long period when public causes took up much of her energy.
Her most recent demonstration was in summer 2005 when she and other protesters against the war in Iraq camped out at the Crawford, Texas ranch of President George W. Bush.
The two qualities she said were most important in her years accompanying leaders ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dali Lama to Bob Dylan and Bono, are a spirit for mischief and a sense of humor.
With a smile, she began to walk out the door, stopping at everyone who was in reach for a picture or a handshake, but in most cases a warm hug.
Kristina Grbic, a second-year NYU student, is one of several students not enrolled in Urban's class who woke up for the 9am seminar to meet Baez. "I mediated with Joan Baez and then she hugged me," she said. "My mom is going to flip out."
April Antonellis is in her third year at New York University, studying journalism and art history. She is from South Glastonbury, Connecticut.
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