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Shonka Dukureh, blues singer and ‘Elvis’ actress, found dead at 44


American blues singer and budding actress Shonka Dukureh was found dead at her home in Tennessee, police said Thursday.

She was propelled to international fame just months before she died, after playing Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in Baz Luhrmann’s movie “Elvis.” She was 44.

“Dukureh was found dead in the bedroom of her Kothe Way apartment that she shared with her two young children,” the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said in a statement. One of her children found her unresponsive and ran to alert a neighbor, who called 911, it added.

“No foul play is evident,” police said, and an autopsy was scheduled to determine the cause of death.

Tributes have poured in for the singer from Charlotte, N.C., who had made Nashville her home.

“A special light went out today,” Luhrmann, the “Elvis” director, wrote on Instagram. He said the film’s cast and crew were “heartbroken” and shared images of her on the set.

“From the moment she came into our world, Shonka brought joy, spirit and of course her voice and her music. Whenever she was on set, on stage or even just in the room, everyone always felt uplifted,” Luhrmann added. “Shonka was just starting to find a larger audience for her tremendous talent.”

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She shot to fame starring alongside Austin Butler, who plays Elvis Presley in the lively biopic, and Tom Hanks as his Svengali-esque manager, Col. Tom Parker. Butler shared Luhrmann’s tribute online.

The movie is widely expected to scoop up accolades during the Hollywood awards season. It highlights the White music icon’s practice of drawing from the work of his Black contemporaries, and Dukureh plays American blues singer Thornton, who was the first to record Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” in 1952, which a young Elvis on screen hears and adopts.

Dukureh was a graduate of Nashville’s Fisk University, where she studied theater, and later gained a master’s degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene University. She also worked as an author and playwright, according to her official website.

She performed with artists such as Nick Cave, Mike Farris and Jamie Liddell and appeared this year at the music festival Coachella with singer and rapper Doja Cat.

“An incredible talent taken from us too soon,” Doja Cat, whose real name is Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini, posted on Instagram in a tribute. “Was a true honor getting to know her,” she added, sharing a picture of them together.

Dukureh had been planning to release her first studio album, titled “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,” according to her website.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper tweeted his condolences to Dukureh’s family and said “her powerful voice and artistry will live on through her music, and we honor her memory on this sad day.”

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