Award-winning narrator finds her niche with audiobooks

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

When Bahni Turpin speaks, people listen.

That’s because her voice can be heard on many audiobooks.

An actress and an award-winning narrator, Turpin, who is in the Audible Hall of Fame, began narrating audiobooks in 2005.

Today, she is considered one of the most popular narrators, garnering an impressive three Audie Awards nominations this year for “One Blood,” “Coleman Hill,” and “The Quest of the Silver Fleece.”

The Audie Awards is the premier awards program in the United States recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken-word entertainment.

“The first Audie I won, I didn’t even know I was nominated,” Turpin said. “It was through Random House. The book was, ‘The Help.’ It was the Audiobook of the Year. I had three other narrators on that book. It was me, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell and Jenna Lamia.”

Turpin, a Pontiac, Michigan native, has won six Audie Awards, including Audio Book of the Year for the No. 1 New York Times best-selling book, “Children Of Blood and Bone,” a young adult fantasy novel by Nigerian-American novelist Tomi Adeyemi. 

Turpin has also won multiple Earphone Awards and two Odyssey Awards. She also has earned a spot on AudioFile magazine’s list of Golden Voice Narrators.

In 2016, she was named Audible’s Narrator of the Year and won Publishers Weekly’s Narrator of the Year.

Turpin has narrated several popular books that were adapted for film and television, including “The Help,” “The Hate U Give,” “The Underground Railroad” and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Turpin, who said she could read at 2 years old and fluently by the time she was in kindergarten, was 9 when she took acting classes. 

At 2, Turpin was asthmatic. Her mother, a social worker and child psychologist, thought it was emotional and that Turpin may just need to express herself.

Soon thereafter, Turpin, who still has asthma, attended Will-O-Way school on Saturdays for acting. It was there that she caught the acting bug.

“When my mom told me I was going to take acting classes, I said, ‘I’ll be a movie star,’” said Turpin, an ensemble member of the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles. The theater company specializes in community-based collaborations, mixing professional members and local talent. 

“A big part of getting people to like something is encouragement,” Turpin said. “They encouraged me and made me feel like I was good. I don’t know if I was good or not. Will-O-Way was a family business and an apprentice theater. It was less structured. It was a lot of play. We imagined a lot of situations. They taught us experientially.”

Turpin went on to study acting at Howard University and New York University and received a scholarship to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute drama school in New York City. She spent 12 years in New York City, sharpening her acting tools in theatre.

She also studied dance for a year with an Alvin Ailey program.

“A year later, I had a back injury,” said Turpin, a married, stepmother of one. “It was brutal.”

One thing led to another. Turpin waited tables, became a street peddler and was part of a street repertory ensemble that performed plays before getting “The Rabbit Foot,” her first union play in 1986 at the Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey. 

She also started doing extra work on soap operas, which allowed her to get into the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union. She then moved to Los Angeles 30 years ago to pursue more work in television and film.

She made her acting debut in Julie Dash’s 1991 historic film, “Daughters of the Dust,” the first feature film directed by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States.

Turpin’s road to narration came quite by happenstance.

“It was word of mouth,” she said. “An actress told me she knew of someone who was looking for people to read books on tape. I went. They hired me to do a book called, “A Piece of Cake” by Cupcake Brown. It was a gritty book. It was her autobiography. She had lost her mom at 9. Her mother’s boyfriend was not her father. She was put into the system and became a gang member and drug addict. Now she’s a lawyer.”

Turpin’s first audiobook narrations were at Random House, now called Penguin Random House. She reads about 100 pages per six-hour session.

“There is usually a director present to guide the tone of the book,” said Turpin who reads the book before laying down the narration.

At this point in her career, Turpin doesn’t have to petition for work.

“I get an email from a publisher and they say, ‘We have a book,’” said Turpin, who narrates between three and five books a month. “Either I audition or they offer it. Very rarely do I pass on a book. If I do, it’s because I’m busy or I don’t like it.”

Turpin’s preference is to narrate fiction and stories that are interesting to her.

“I would pick a fantasy over a nice, homie tale,” said Turpin, who just recently narrated “Death of Innocence” by Mamie Till Moseley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old teen lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

Since becoming a popular book narrator, Turpin said it’s become hard to read a book during her leisure time.

“That’s the downside,” she said. “But I listen to books constantly.”

The qualities of a good narrator, Turpin said, include being a fluid reader and a good actor who can put emotion into their voice.

“You have to be able to delineate characters,” she said. “You may have to read five dudes in the same book. You have to make them all sound different. You have your go tos, it’s not just the pitch of your voice, it’s the pace of someone and the timbre of the voice.”

Currently working on a book called, “Tales From Cabin 23: The Boo Hag Flex,” by Justina Ireland, Turpin isn’t sure why her voice is so popular or what sets it apart.

“I don’t know,” said Turpin, who founded the SoLA Food Co-Op in South Los Angeles. “If I did know, I wouldn’t want to tell anybody. I feel like I’m able to get into characters and make them interesting. They seem to like the way my voice sounds.”

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at