Shonka Dukureh, who made her movie debut as Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in Baz Luhrmann‘s Elvis biopic, has died. She was 44, according to the Huffington Post.
According to police, one of Dukureh’s children found her dead Thursday in the bedroom of her Nashville apartment, Deadline reported. The child called a neighbor for help. Police arrived at the scene at 9:27 a.m. Currently, the medical examiner is determining the cause of her death. No foul play is suspected.
“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,” she said.
Thornton was the first artist to record “Hound Dog” before Elvis Presley covered it. The film features Dukureh’s moving rendition of the song, according to Huffington Post.
Dukureh hailed from Charlotte, North Carolina, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater from Fisk University. She received her master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University.
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Dukureh performed with Nick Cave, Jamie Lidell, The Royal Pharaohs, Mike Farris, Pete Rock, Smoke Dza and Bahamas, according to her website, Deadline reported.
Before acting, Dukureh was a second-grade teacher. She told news station WPLN that her former students were shocked seeing her on screen.
“They’re blown away, like, ‘Wow! Miss Shonka! Really?'” she said.
“I said, ‘I’m still Ms. Shonka, you know!'”
Nashville Mayor John Cooper offered his sympathies and honored her in a statement.” Her powerful voice and artistry will live on through her music, and we honor her memory on this sad day,” he said per FOX 17.
Dukureh is survived by two young children.