Shonka Dukureh, Actress Who Made Big-Screen Debut in Elvis, Dead at 44

Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton in Elvis. Photo: Kane Skennar/Warner Bros. Pictures

Actress and blues singer Shonka Dukureh has died, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said on July 22. The Elvis actress was found in the bedroom of her apartment shared with her two children with no signs of foul play, according to police. She was 44. Dukureh recently played Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic in her big-screen debut — her performance of “Hound Dog” in the film went viral online. “[Big Mama Thornton] was really raw with what she did and very honest and truthful and [made] music as she felt it,” Dukureh said about portraying the blues legend. “And I could totally relate to that. I was very aware and wanting to really be intentional about making sure I was paying respect, respecting her, respecting her legacy, respecting her spirit, respecting everything about what she brought to music and understanding that I’m able to do it because she’s done it and laid that foundation.”

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dukureh earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Fisk University and a master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene. She went on to become an elementary-school teacher and theater actress, radio station WPLN-FM reported. In 2003, she won the Tennessean Theatre Award for Best Musical Direction or Performance As a Vocalist for her role in Marcus Hummon’s American Duet and spent over a decade touring college campuses to perform the First Amendment Center’s musical Freedom Sings, according to her website. Dukureh was working on her first studio album, The Lady Sings the Blues, when she died. Doja Cat, who performed with Dukureh at Coachella earlier this year and appeared on the Elvis soundtrack, shared her condolences in an Instagram Story. “Was a true honor getting to know her and I am so grateful to her for lending her incredible vocals to ‘Vegas,’” she wrote. “Her amazing performance in Elvis amongst her other artistry will live on.”

Shonka Dukureh, Elvis Actress and Singer, Dead at 44