Shonka Dukureh, ‘Elvis’ Actress and Blues Singer, Dies at 44

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Shonka Dukureh, an actress and blues singer who had a brief appearance in this summer’s film “Elvis,” was found dead in her apartment in Tennessee on Thursday. She was 44.

Metro Nashville Police announced via Twitter that Dukureh was found dead in the bedroom of her apartment that she shared with her two young children. Authorities added that no foul play was evident. Dukureh’s death was also reported by local Tennessee media and TMZ, who added that one of Dukureh’s children found her unresponsive and went to a neighbor’s apartment for help. Authorities are investigating a cause of death.

Dukureh portrayed Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” in her first feature film role, and she also recently appeared in the music video for Doja Cat’s song “Vegas.” She even got the chance to perform with Doja Cat on stage during the pop star’s performance at Coachella earlier this year.

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On the “Elvis” official movie soundtrack, she also is credited with a recording of “Hound Dog,” as Big Mama Thornton was the first to record the song that Elvis Presley would later make famous. Dukureh was set to release her debut album called “The Lady Sings the Blues” this year, which she says on her website was inspired by her work in “Elvis.”

“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 said.

Darren Higman, EVP Music for “Elvis” distributor Warner Bros., issued a statement Thursday after the news of Dukureh’s passing.

“When we began looking for singers and musicians for ‘Elvis’ we came across a very special talent in our gospel session by the name of Shonka. We recorded over a period of months, during which time Baz also witnessed this immense talent,” Higman said. “This movie kicked off an active breakthrough point in her career, which she relished. She appeared in the movie and made a pop music video with Doja Cat. Shonka will be forever remembered as kind, gentle, and very modest about her immense talent. We are so happy the world got to witness that talent through ‘Elvis.’”

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Dukureh, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, was a graduate of Fisk University, where she studied theater, and she also held a master’s degree from Trevecca Nazarene University. In her career she’s internationally toured with artists such as Jamie Liddell and The Royal Pharaohs, and she had also been featured as a soloist or background vocalist with artists such as Nick Cave, Mike Farris, Christopher Roberts and more.

In performing as Thornton in “Elvis,” Dukureh told The Tennessean that she could relate to Thornton’s “really raw” and “very honest and truthful” music.

“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 said.

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