Co-stars pay tribute to ‘Elvis’ actor Shonka Dukureh, who was found dead at 44

A woman in a big plaid beret and a satin shirt stands singing into a microphone.
Shonka Dukureh starred as Big Mama Thornton in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.”
(Kane Skennar / Warner Bros.)

Actor and singer Shonka Dukureh, who appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” has died, according to Nashville police. She was 44.

On Thursday, Dukureh was found dead in the bedroom of her Nashville apartment, which she shared with her two young children, Nashville police said on Twitter. Police said, “No foul play is evident.” A cause of death has yet to be revealed.

The 2022 biopic, released just last month, marked Dukureh’s big-screen debut, alongside Austin Butler and Tom Hanks. She played singer-songwriter Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who was the first to record the hit song “Hound Dog” in 1952.


Dukureh recorded a version of “Hound Dog” for the “Elvis” soundtrack and also was featured in Doja Cat’s single for the film, “Vegas.” She joined Doja Cat onstage to perform the track at Coachella earlier this year.

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In a July 13 Instagram post, Dukureh expressed her joy and gratitude for the role she played in the box-office hit.

“Gratefulness is where I live cuz my granny, gmama, momma, family modeled and instilled it in me,” she wrote. “It isn’t a posture of less than or crumbs scraping, but one that acknowledges good things aren’t a guarantee and when we encounter them thankfulness, gratefulness is the least we can express.”

Dukureh had been working on her first studio album, “The Lady Sings the Blues.”

“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,” she wrote on her website.

Before pursuing music full-time, Dukureh worked as a teacher in the Nashville public school system. The Charlotte, N.C., native received a bachelor’s degree in theater from Fisk University in Nashville and a master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University.

“I taught second grade for a little while over at Buena Vista Elementary in Metro Schools, and then did a lot of work with inner-city youth doing after-school programming, summer programming — those programs that we need during the break so that kids can have a positive place to be,” Dukureh told WPLN.


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Following her death, Dukureh’s “Elvis” co-stars commemorated her on social media.

Luhrmann paid tribute to Dukureh on Friday on his Instagram.

“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,” Luhrmann 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.”

Luhrmann concluded the post by writing, “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.”

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“Rest in peace Shonka — an incredible talent taken from us too soon. Was a true honor getting to know her and I am truly grateful to her for lending her incredible vocals to ‘Vegas,’” Doja Cat wrote in an Instagram story. “Her amazing performance in Elvis amongst her other artistry will live on. Sending my deepest condolences to her loved ones.”

Singer Yola, who played Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the film, honored her friend and co-star on her Instagram Friday morning.

“Today we lost a gentle soul. We in Nashville knew her as a very humble and shy person who would transform before our eyes into a blistering singing and acting talent,” Yola wrote. “We are heartbroken. Rest in power dear Shonka Dukureh, your light went out far too soon. Sending love to her family including her two young kids at this impossibly hard time.”