Shonka Dukureh, an actress and musician who portrayed R&B singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in this year’s Elvis biopic, has died at the age of 44.
Dukureh was found dead by police on Thursday (July 21) in her home in Nashville, after one of her two young children found her unresponsive and sought help from a neighbour, who called 911. According to police, there is no evidence of foul play. No cause of death has been disclosed, and autopsy results from the medical examiner are still pending.
BREAKING: No foul play is evident in today's death of actress Shonka Dukureh, 44, who portrayed Big Mama Thornton in this year's Elvis movie. Dukureh, a Fisk Univ graduate, was found dead in the bedroom of her Kothe Way apt that she shared with her 2 young children.
— Metro Nashville PD (@MNPDNashville) July 21, 2022
Elvis, director Baz Luhrmann’s biopic about Elvis Presley which arrived in theatres in June, marked Dukureh’s first major film role. She portrayed Thornton, who was the first artist to record ‘Hound Dog’, in 1952, having a hit with the song a few years before Presley did with his version.
In addition to appearing in the film, Dukureh also featured in the accompanying music video for Doja Cat‘s song from the Elvis soundtrack, ‘Vegas’, which interpolates a sample of Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog’ recording. Dukureh also appeared onstage with Doja Cat during the rapper’s set at Coachella in April of this year, performing the song together. Dukureh’s recording of ‘Hound Dog’ appeared on the soundtrack for Elvis.
Dukureh grew up in Nashville, graduating from Fisk University with a theatre degree and Trevecca Nazarene with an education degree. In addition to her work as a musician and actress, she had also previously been a teacher and ran after-school and summer school programs for inner-city youth.
Speaking about Dukureh earlier this year, director Baz Luhrmann said she had answered a call to do vocals when he was recording with Dave Cobb in Nashville. “Her performance was so great she seemed the perfect person to play the all-important role of Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton in Elvis,” Luhrmann said.