By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — The sudden death of actress and vocalist Shonka Dukureh has left many in the Nashville entertainment community stunned and saddened. Dukureh was found unresponsive in her Nashville apartment last Thursday. At 44, she was getting widespread rave reviews for her performance as Big Mama Thornton in the current film “Elvis.” Dukureh was both a Fisk and Trevecca Nazarene University graduate, earning her bachelor’s degree in theater from Fisk and a master’s in education from Trevecca. The Thornton role was her first major one, and it seemed stardom awaited her.
One of many who offered their thoughts and memories was fellow film co-star Shannon Sanders. “This is the first project that we’ve done together,” Sanders said in responding to Tribune questions. “I actually met her when we did the recording for the movie. Odessa Settles (from The Settles Connection) brought her to a session and the moment she sang, I was like, “Wow, She’s amazing!” I could tell that she was something special. It’s incredible that we didn’t meet until the movie because clearly we lived in the same town and knew a lot of the same people. We chalked it up to this being the right time and in many ways, it was.”
He also recalled her magnetic personality.” Personally: Shonka had a wonderful smile. She would walk into a room and literally light it up. Professionally: She was very unassuming but her talent was unlimited. There was so much that she had to offer and it was clear that we were just scratching the surface in terms of what she was capable of. She went to Fisk, she was professionally trained and had a musical theatre background. Between that and her raw talent, whatever we needed her to do vocally, she could do it effortlessly. It was something to see and I was super excited about what was to come for her because it was evident that she was going somewhere big.”
Sanders added that her dedication and devotion to the role was impressive. “She didn’t sign up to play the role in the movie. When [the producers] came to Nashville to record the choir audio for it, they didn’t know they would find me and Shonka to do actual roles in the film. And again, that speaks to just how phenomenal she was: she was an immediate standout. We had a 25-voice choir and she came with Odessa. The moment I heard her voice, she surpassed all of my expectations and never ceased to amaze me with what she was able to do with her vocal abilities. When it came to the movie, every take was live. Basically, what you heard and saw in the movie are the same (no lip syncing). Actually, the “I get it” loop in the Doja Cat song from the film is Shonka (“Vegas”). And that’s what I think about when it comes to her: Whenever I hear the song, I’m like ‘Yeah Shonka, get it!’ because the loop is a metaphor for where she was headed. I was so proud to know her. It’s an amazing Black music story that was just beginning. There was no limit to where she was going to go and that’s what hurts so much about all of this. The Last time I saw her was at the Franklin premiere of the movie and the last thing I remember her saying to me was “Thank you, brother, so much for doing this. It was amazing.”
Others who remembered Dukureh included Nashville mayor John Cooper and performing artists DojaCat, who performed in the “Elvis” film, and Yola, who portrayed Sister Rosetta Tharpe.. “Her powerful voice and artistry will live on through her music, and we honor her memory on this sad day,” Cooper wrote. “Was a true honor getting to know her and I am so grateful to her for lending her incredible vocals to ‘Vegas’,” DojaCat’s Instagram post read. “Her amazing performance in Elvis amongst her other artistry will live on.”
Yola also had an Instagram post in her honor. “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. 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.”
Dukureh was honored during a special program Saturday following a march in honor of the late Representative and Civil Rights leader John Lewis.