Shonka Dukureh, Big Mama Thornton in 'Elvis,' Dead at 44

Shonka Dukureh Elvis
Warner Bros.

Elvis actress and blues singer Shonka Dukureh was found dead in her Nashville apartment Thursday, ET can confirm. She was 44.

According to the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, Dukureh, who played Big Mama Thornton in the Baz Luhrmann production, was found dead Thursday morning, in the bedroom of her apartment that she shared with her two young children. One of them found her unresponsive and ran to a neighbor’s apartment, where police said, at 9:27 a.m., the neighbor called 911.

While foul play is not suspected, Dukureh’s cause of death is not yet known, and is still under investigation, pending autopsy results from the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Shonka Dukureh
Shonka Dukureh/Instagram

In addition to landing her first major film role in Elvis, Dukureh appeared in Doja Cat's "Vegas" music video, where she played the Big Mama Thornton role as well.

On Friday, Elvis director Baz Luhrmann released a statement in honor of Dukureh.

"A special light went out today and all of the Elvis movie family are heartbroken by the loss of Shonka Dukureh. From the moment she came into our world, Shonka brought joy, spirit and of course her voice and her music," the filmmaker wrote on Instagram. "Whenever she was on set, on stage or even just in the room, everyone always felt uplifted. Shonka was just starting to find a larger audience for her tremendous talent, and I got to see her uplift whole crowds of people at Coachella and beyond. A favorite word of Shonka’s, in daily use, was 'blessings,' and I, along with the entire Elvis cast, crew and musical collaborators, feel truly blessed to have had time with her. We send all our love and support to Shonka’s children and family at this time."

Additionally, Doja Cat also paid honored Dukureh on her Instagram Story.

Doja Cat Shonka Dukureh

Dukureh spoke to Memphis' ABC24 News about her role in the film, and the "magical" experience of working alongside Luhrman and the rest of Elvis' cast and crew.

"They got it down. I mean, they replicated the whole thing," Dukureh said of the Beale St. set, used to depict Memphis' bustling hub, in the film. "Baz was very, and his team, was very intentional about being detailed, and making sure that everything was done right, and I thought I was on Beale St. Of course, I knew I wasn't 'cause I was in Australia, but the way everybody came together to re-create it, it was magical. It was magical."

Dukureh said the film helped bring a whole new generation to Elvis and some of the other music greats featured in the film.

"I find, even as I'm looking at different people's reaction online, that a whole new generation is talking about Elvis, and talking about some of the characters in the film," she shared. "They've got people really talking. And so I'm glad to bring -- if Big Mama's name is mentioned more than myself, then that's fine, because she's due that. She's due those flowers. She's due that recognition. And so, I'm very honored to honor her."

According to Dukureh's website, the teacher turned Hollywood star, who lent her powerhouse vocals to the film, was set to release her first studio album this summer.


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