Shonka Dukureh, the actress and singer who made her big screen debut as Big Mama Thornton alongside Austin Butler Baz Luhrmann's Elvis biopic, died of "natural causes." A little more than a month after Dukureh was found dead in her Nashville apartment at the age of 44, Tennessee's Davidson County Medical Examiner's office confirmed Dukureh's cause of death.
A representative for the medical examiner's office confirmed to the Los Angeles Times Tuesday that Dukureh's official cause of death was "hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease." Hypertension is also known as high blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic, while atherosclerosis "is the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on the artery walls," which causes arteries to narrow, blocking blood flow. The buildup, called plaque, can also burst, leading to a blood clot. The medical examiner determined the actress' death to be of "natural causes."
Dukureh was found dead in the bedroom of her Nashville apartment, which she shared with her two young children, on the morning of July 21. One of her children found her unresponsive and ran to a neighbor's apartment. The neighbor called 911 at 9:27 a.m. Authorities said at the time of her passing that foul play was not suspected in her death. Dukureh was 44.
"My deepest condolences to the family of Shonka Dukureh. Shonka graduated from Fisk and called Nashville home for many years," Nashville Mayor John Cooper said in a statement via Fox17. "Her powerful voice and artistry will live on through her music, and we honor her memory on this sad day."
A performing artist and graduate of Fisk University who initially wanted to become a teacher, Dukureh starred in many plays and touring musicals across the U.S. and provided background vocals on albums for multiple Grammy-winning artists. She also toured internationally with recording artist Jamie Lidell and The Royal Pharaohs and was a celebrated gospel singer in the Nashville area. Her death came shortly after she made her big screen debut in Elvis, Dukureh starring as Big Mama Thornton, the iconic R&B singer-songwriter who first recorded "Hound Dog." She also appeared in Doja Cat's music video for "Vegas," from the Elvis soundtrack. Following her passing, the film's director remembered Dukureh as a "special light" who "brought joy, spirit and of course her voice and her music." He went on to share, "whenever she was on set, on stage or even just in the room, everyone always felt uplifted."