Fisk University alumna Shonka Dukureh, who played legendary blues pioneer Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton in the new feature film Elvis, has died at 44. Learn more in the story by Zoey Hodge at Andscape below.
Actress and singer Shonka Dukureh soared to stardom quickly after what started as an audition tape led to a legendary role in the hit film Elvis.
Just a few weeks after the release of the film, Dukureh, 44, was found dead in her Nashville, Tennessee, apartment on Thursday. It was days before a weekend filled with performances, including the John LewisWay March in Nashville on Saturday, where she was scheduled to sing. Now, officials are reporting there will be a short tribute for her following the event.
The march was set to celebrate the one-year anniversary for the formal dedication of renaming a portion of the city’s 5th Avenue to Rep. John Lewis Way. Like Dukureh, Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights icon, was a Fisk University graduate.
Dukureh was scheduled for an interview with Andscape on Monday.
“No foul play is evident in today’s death of actress Shonka Dukureh,” the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department tweeted Thursday. “Dukureh, a Fisk Univ graduate, was found dead in the bedroom of her Kothe Way apt that she shared with her 2 young children.”
Dukureh, who was originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, made the “Music City” her home. She earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Fisk University and a master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University.
Dukureh’s longtime mentor Rev. Jeff Obafemi Carr told Andscape in a statement that she was a “generational talent, one that has infected, effected and affected scores of people who were blessed to witness her gifts.”
Carr met Dukureh at Fisk University while he was completing consulting work with the dramatics and speech department.
“Her drama professor, Persephone Felder-Fentress, was bragging about having found a certified star,” Carr said. “The first time I heard Shonka open her mouth, all of my highest expectations were shattered in one clear, powerful, laser-focused burst of melodic excellence. Even as an experienced producer and director, I became an instant fan.”
Shortly after Dukureh graduated, Carr cast her in the production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity.
“Her rendition of ‘There’s a Leak in This Old Building’ had people shouting in the aisles,” Carr added. “Needless to say, anytime I had a project that needed excellence in its foundation, Shonka was the cornerstone. Even when I founded an interfaith spiritual community, she lent her voice to bring her trademark soulfulness and power to the welcome table.”
Dukureh leaves behind her children. She was working on an unfinished album she was gearing up to launch later this year.
Dukureh always had a passion for music and got her early start in gospel. She admired many gospel artists, including Shirley Caesar, The Clark Sisters and Yolanda Adams. Her powerful voice encapsulates emotions allowing listeners to truly feel the passion behind her lyrics.
So when she landed her big role in Elvis as Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the legendary blues singer and original singer of the song “Hound Dog” made popular by Elvis Presley, she was elated.
She recently shared the story of how she got the role.
“I was contacted by a local legend here in the music arena, Odessa Settles,” Dukureh told The Tennessee Tribune. According to the newspaper, Settles is the daughter of gospel ensemble singer Walter Settles of the famous Fairfield Four.
“Not very long after I sent the [audition tapes] in, Miss Odessa called me back. … She said, ‘Shonka, they love you!’ … I think she was just as shocked and surprised as I was at how much they loved what they heard and saw from me.”
The film is now in theaters and scheduled to hit HBO Max on Aug. 8.
Dukureh made her big-screen debut starring as Thornton alongside Austin Butler and Tom Hanks. Her cover of “Hound Dog” for the film was sampled in Doja Cat’s new hit “Vegas.” Dukureh made her first appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with Doja Cat. Many fans believed it was Thornton on the track, but it was actually vocal powerhouse Dukureh.
She later shared behind-the-scenes footage of the music video shoot on Instagram.
“A little BTS from the video shoot for Doja Cats VEGAS. After all the fuss around me and puttn me together I was toooo tickled at the results.”
Baz Luhrmann, the director of Elvis, released a note on Instagram.
“A special light went out today and all of the Elvis movie family are heartbroken by the loss of Shonka Dukureh,” he wrote.
“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. … 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.”
Doja Cat also posted a message on her Instagram story.
“Rest in Peace Shonka – an incredible talent taken from us too soon. Was a true honor getting to know her and I am so grateful to her for lending her incredible vocals to ‘Vegas,’ ” Doja Cat wrote. “Her amazing performance in Elvis amongst her other artistry will live on. Sending my deepest condolences to her loved ones.”
Before Elvis, Dukureh starred in many plays and musicals across the United States. In 2003, she won the Tennessean Theatre Award for best musical direction or performance as a vocalist for her role in American Duet. According to Sacred Music, Dukureh also spent more than 10 years touring college campuses and conferences with the First Amendment Center’s multimedia musical production Freedom Sings. She also toured internationally with the Royal Pharaohs and recording artist Jamie Lidell.
Besides being a musician, Dukureh was also a mother and educator who devoted much of her time to underserved youths.
Dukureh was gearing up to launch her album later this year.
The album, titled The Lady Sings the Blues, was inspired by the role of Thornton and is ultimately a tribute and celebration of blues and the fierce sound brought by musical pioneers of the genre.
Mayor John Cooper of Nashville tweeted in response to her death: “Her powerful voice and artistry will live on through her music, and we honor her memory on this sad day.”