Shonka Dukureh, Singer Who Starred in ‘Elvis’ as Big Mama Thornton, Dies at 44

Shonka Dukureh, the singer and actor who portrayed Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” was found dead in her Nashville, Tenn. apartment on Thursday, police confirmed. She was 44.

According to a tweet from the Metro Nashville Police Department, no foul play is evident in Dukureh’s death. “Dukureh, a Fisk Univ graduate, was found dead in the bedroom of her Kothe Way apt that she shared with her 2 young children,” the tweet reads.

As reported by The Tennessean, Dukureh was found unresponsive on Thursday morning by one of her children, who went to a neighbor for help. A cause of death is not yet known and will be determined by the medical examiner.

Dukureh got her breakout role this year in “Elvis” as Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the iconic R&B singer-songwriter who was the first to record Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog” in 1952, which would later be made even more famous by Elvis Presley. “Elvis” was Dukureh’s first major film role, and her voice is featured on the film’s soundtrack in her version of “Hound Dog.”

According to The Tennessean, Dukureh was from Charlotte, N.C. but later became a Nashville resident. She received a bachelor’s degree in theater from Fisk University and a master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University. According to her website, Dukureh had plans to release her first full-length album soon. “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,” Dukureh wrote on her website.

Throughout her career, Dukureh performed and recorded with artists like Jamie Lidell and the Royal Pharaohs, Nick Cave, Mike Farris, Pete Rock, Smoke Dza and Bahamas, according to her website.

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