Tyra Emerson: JAMS Festival organizer eyes her 20th year

By Sadef Ali Kully

If someone had told a 10-year old Tyra Emerson, the executive director of Cultural Collaborative Jamaica, that she would be leading a major arts and culture group for downtown Jamaica, she would have shaken her head no.

Her mother, a seamstress, and her father, who worked at an iron foundry, dragged little Tyra to culture events to see Bernie Johnson and the Henry Street Settlement from her home in St. Albans.

“We had a regimented life. We woke up on Saturdays, cleaned the house, went to dance class or music class, and then visited these cultural programs across the city,” Emerson said.

After graduating with a degree in marketing from Long Island University’s C.W. Post, she joined the Queens Council of Arts as grants coordinator and then later served as the program director.

Her moment to shine came after she joined the Cultural Collaborative Jamaica to become the force she is today in southeast Queens.

Cultural Collaborative Jamaica unites artists, arts organizations, local businesses and educational leaders in efforts to strengthen community and economic development in Jamaica. It is made up of dozens of members, such as York College, Black Spectrum Theatre and the Queens Symphony Orchestra.

Emerson said the Collaborative, as she calls it, gave her the freedom to come up with creative ways to bring culture and the community together. This led to the Jamaica Arts and Musical Summer festival, the largest street festival in Queens.

JAMS is packed with musical and dance entertainment, food, vendors, and shopping all along Jamaica Avenue. It began at York College 19 years ago and the following year when vendors asked to be part of the festival, Emerson took it to the streets, literally.

“I asked and it happened — the joke is that no one ever asked,” said Emerson, who approached the local community and business leaders to see if JAMS could take place on Jamaica Avenue and they approved her request.

“We had to negotiate it out, but it was a win-win for all involved,” she said.

“People came on foot that day and there were news helicopters all over the place because everyone thought something had happened. Something did happen: It was JAMS,” said Emerson, laughing.

Every September, Emerson begins to prepare for the festival, which takes place over the summer This year her team is working double time with the 20th anniversary around the corner.

“We could not be more excited about next year,” Emerson said. “We have to do something big and exciting for the community. It is not even a question, it is a must.”

Today, Emerson picks up her 93-year old mother so that she can enjoy the JAMS festival, jokingly mentioning that “now it’s my turn.”

Reach Reporter Sadef Ali Kully by e-mail at skully@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4546.