Shonka Dukureh, who portrayed Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, was found dead in her Nashville apartment on Thursday, July 21st. She was 44 years old.
According to the Metro Nashville Police Department (via Tennessean), Dukureh was found unresponsive by one of her children early Thursday morning who went to a neighbor’s apartment for help. Police do not suspect foul play and an autopsy is underway to determine the exact cause of death.
Dukureh hailed from Charlotte, but resided in Nashville after graduating from Fisk University with a bachelor’s degree in theater. She also held a master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University.
Prior to landing the role in Elvis, Dukureh performed gospel and blues music locally and worked as an elementary school teacher.
Dukureh was originally hired to sing as part of a gospel choir featured in the film. A year after filming the scene locally in Nashville, she was contacted by producers who offered her the role of Big Mama Thornton and flew her to Australia to re-join the production.
As a testament to her talent, Dukureh’s rendition of “Hound Dog” was featured on the soundtrack to Elvis. She also appeared in Doja Cat’s companion music video for “Vegas,” and later joined the pop star to perform the song at Coachella.
Prior to her death, Dukureh had been working on her debut studio album.