‘Elvis’ Star Shonka Dukureh’s Cause of Death Revealed

by Chris Piner

Last month, as moviegoers flooded theaters to watch Baz Luhrmann’s take on the iconic singer Elvis Presley, blues singer Shonka Dukureh suddenly passed away at her apartment in Nashville. According to the Metro Nashville Police Department, the actress shared her residence with her two children, who found their mother and called the authorities. At the time, the police ruled out foul play. Portraying Big Mama Thornton in Elvis, fellow cast members showered the family with their love and support through the difficult time. Recently, US Weekly acquired a coroner’s report noting that the star died from “hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”

On July 21, after news broke that Shonka Dukureh passed away, the Nashville Police Department tweeted, “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 [University] graduate, was found dead in the bedroom of her Kothe Way apt that she shared with her 2 young children.” 

Going Far Beyond The Screen

As mentioned above, Shonka Dukureh’s talents went far beyond the silver screen. She not only graduated from Music City’s Fish University but she expanded her gospel singing into a career while once working as an elementary school teacher. She recalled her past in June, speaking with WPLN,  “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.  They’re blown away, like, ‘Wow! Miss Shonka! Really?’ I said, ‘I’m still Ms. Shonka, you know!’”

Baz Luhrmann Remembers Shonka Dukureh As A Blessing

Barely a week after her death, Elvis director Baz Luhrmann did more than post a touching tribute to Shonka Dukureh, he wrote an entire article for Time. He drafted, “Underneath all that goodness was a playful human being, funny as hell. I can’t imagine her being in a situation where she wouldn’t connect with those around her. That’s a very special thing, the energy she brought—through her eyes, her voice, her presence. She would just make a room full of life.”

While describing the first time they met and Shonka Dukureh landing the role, Baz Luhrmann insisted, “Shonka was always saying ‘blessings.’ That’s what she said after I asked her if she would consider taking on the role of Big Mama Thornton in Elvis, or how she would feel about performing on stage alongside Doja Cat at Coachella in April. It was completely gracious. It meant more than thank you; she was thanking you and thanking a higher power than ourselves, in equal measure. I used to tease her about how much she said it, but she wasn’t joking.”