Shonka Dukureh, an actress and performing artist who recently appeared in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, has died in Nashville, Tennessee. WSMV4 reports that the 44-year-old, who portrayed Big Mama Thornton in the 2022 movie, was found dead on July 20 in the bedroom of her apartment, where she lived with her two young children, the Metro Nashville Police Department said.
One of her children reportedly found Dukureh unresponsive and ran to a neighbor's apartment. The neighbor then dialed 911 at 9:27 a.m. According to police, her death is unclassified pending the results of the autopsy by the Medical Examiner's Office. No foul play is suspected, and further details about her death are currently unavailable.
Dukureh was a performing artist and graduate of Fisk University who initially wanted to become a teacher. She starred in many plays and touring musicals across the U.S. and has provided background vocals on albums for multiple Grammy-winning artists. Dukureh also toured internationally with recording artist Jamie Lidell and The Royal Pharaohs.
The vocalist recently made her film debut in Elvis as the legendary Big Mama Thornton, one of Elvis Presley's inspirations and the original creator of the song "Hound Dog," which launched his career. Additionally, she performed Doja Cat's hit song "Vegas" with the music artist at both weekends of Coachella this year.
Dukureh told Shadow and Act in April that she was delighted to have the opportunity to express her talents both on stage and in film."It's been amazing and I'm looking forward to doing it all over again," she said. "It's just been a dream. I didn't even know it was a dream [of mine] until I really got there and experienced everything, but it has really been a chance of a lifetime, this life-altering experience."
Dukureh also said she was honored to play Thornton and took special care to portray Thornton's legacy as accurately as possible."You know what, it's all amazing because I know I realize that there were a lot of people who could have played the role or they had a lot of choices out there that they could have gotten to play the role," she said.
"And so I just knew how privileged I was to get the opportunity. And I just wanted to want it to pay the right respect to Big Mama Thornton and to do her justice in the film." She continued, "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."
Dukureh had planned to release her first studio album, The Lady Sings the Blues, in June of 2022. "The project is a tribute to the blues music genre in celebration of those fierce unsung pioneering artists and musicians who paved the way for the rock'n roll music revolution," she was quoted via her official website.
Dukureh told Shadow and Act that it was to be a blues record "where I'm going to be paying tribute to the genre that laid the foundation for music that we're hearing today. I want to have that project ready by June for Black History Month. And I'm just so excited to be able to lend my voice to a genre that has given so much."