Singer, Nashville mom and Fisk grad Shonka Dukureh remembered

Shonka Dukureh
Posted at 8:36 PM, Jul 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-22 21:36:09-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — In an interview with NewsChannel 5 last month, Nashville mom and Fisk graduate Shonka Dukureh talked about how excited she was about her role as Willie Mae Big Mama Thornton in the film "Elvis." Dukureh died this week with metro police saying no foul play is suspected. Her death is a shock to the people who were watching Dukureh enjoy her breakthrough.

"This is where the magic happens," said Fisk University drama professor Persephone Felder-Fentress, gesturing to the theatre around her.

For Felder-Fentress, there's so much pride that comes from having a student who makes the big time. That's exactly what happened for her student Shonka Dukureh, who was invited to Australia to record vocals for a film. That film was Baz Luhrman's "Elvis," and Dukureh's role was about to expand.

"She said, 'Baz asked me to do the role of Big Mama Thornton,'" Felder-Fentress remembered. "I said, 'really, Shonka?' She said, 'I get to stay a little longer!' Oh my gosh!"

Willie Mae Big Mama Thornton was the original singer of "Hound Dog," years before the Presley version topped the charts.

"Oh my goodness. Yes. She did that. She. Did. That," smiled Felder-Fentress, referring to Dukureh's recording of Hound Dog.

Long before the film, Felder-Fentress was directing Dukureh at Fisk's Little Theater. In fact, in a Fisk production more than twenty years ago, one of the songs Dukureh performed was Hound Dog.

"You would have thought that was Big Momma Thornton!" laughed Felder-Fentress. "When she did that, fabulous. Fabulous."

Dukureh had no idea the way that song would play a huge role in her life again, in a #1 hit movie.

"Tears were just streaming down my face because I was just so, so excited for her, elated," said Felder-Fentress of the film release. "We always knew she was a star, now the whole world knows."

Felder-Fentress got the news Thursday that special student, Dukureh, died.

"I just wailed because I just could not believe it," she said. "Has she been ill? Well, what happened? Her children will have something. They are very proud of their mom. All this history that's being recorded, they'll have that, and enjoy it, yes. She was just such a special, special person. You can just not even believe how full of pride I am for Shonka. She's just Shonka, and that's what we love about her."