"I love to share poetry that is encouraging, inspiring, that gives people a sense of a new day, new opportunity of how to persevere,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka tells PEOPLE

By Morgan Smith
May 21, 2020 03:47 PM
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Credit: The City of Newark

There is no time for despair / no place for self-pity / no need for silence / no room for fear …

Toni Morrison’s words ring powerful in Ras Baraka’s baritone voice, and silence follows. It’s not the crowded auditorium the Newark, New Jersey mayor has grown accustomed to. His brow furrows as he looks up earnestly into the webcam, alone in his living room, struggling to find the right words to calm the thousands of people watching him in the midst of a pandemic.

The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has taken a devastating toll on Newark. There have been at least 6,892 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 548 deaths reported, according to NJ.com. It’s the largest, and one of the most crowded, cities in New Jersey, a state with the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States.

Baraka, 50, calls the pandemic “a dire situation.”

“It really keeps me up [at night],” he tells PEOPLE. “We’re struggling to stay afloat in the middle of this, the longer it continues.”

For the past two months, the mayor’s daily coronavirus pandemic briefings have gone like this: urging people to practice social distancing, highlighting community efforts, honoring those who have died from the virus.

Credit: The City of Newark

Then, he typically concludes with a poem. One day it might be Tupac Shakur, the next it might be one Baraka has written himself. The goal, he says, is to spread a little joy, and challenge people to see their city, or the pandemic, in a different light.

“It’s difficult to be happy in these difficult, depressing times,” Baraka notes. “But I love to share poetry that is encouraging, inspiring, that gives people a sense of a new day, new opportunity of how to persevere.”

Baraka has always sought comfort in poetry. His parents, Amiri and Amina, are celebrated poets well-known for their community activism and searing prose on social justice. Amiri died in 2014. Growing up in Newark, Baraka says his house was often filled with jazz music and poets from all over the world giving diatribes in the middle of the living room.

Credit: The City of Newark

“It really changed how I see the world,” he says.

The mayor’s poetry readings have become wildly popular with his constituents — thousands regularly tune in to the briefings, suggesting poems for him to read and sending poetry they’ve written.

“Some days I’m so involved in the information I have to include in the briefing that I’ll forget to do the poem,” he says. “And I’ll invariably get an email that’s like, ‘Yo, you forgot the poem today, man!’”

In between briefings, Baraka has led a number of initiatives to support Newark residents throughout the pandemic, including grants for small businesses and expanded virus testing for the city’s homeless population.

On Saturday, he’ll participate in a "Def Poetry Jam" livestream event to raise money for coronavirus relief among Newark's vulnerable communities.

“He knows poetry is not simply entertainment, but a part of the civil charge and consciousness of the people, his people,” Jasmine Mans, a poet, author and the creative director of artist initiative Embrace Newark, says of Baraka.

One glance at the briefing’s comments sections, filled with praise and well-wishes from residents, shows this rings true.

“Love you and your poems,” one wrote.

Another clever commenter chimed in: “U Can’t Hang, U Can’t Roam Cuz The Mayor Of Newark Wants U To STAY HOME!!!”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.