Mapfumo was imprisoned without charges under the white-dominated regime of Rhodesia. He now lives in exile in the United States, and although he has occasionally returned to Zimbabwe he has not returned since 2005.
Mapfumo was born in 1945 in Marondera, Mashonaland East, a town southeast of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, though at the time the capital was called Salisbury and the country was a colony of Great Britain called Southern Rhodesia (becoming Rhodesia in ordinary usage after Northern Rhodesia gained independence as Zambia). He lived a traditional, rural Shona lifestyle until the age of ten, when his family moved to the Harare township of Mbare. It was during these early years that he was exposed to the traditional music of the Shona, the influence of which would drive his later music to incorporate and/or reflect the sounds of the ngoma drum and the mbira, a metal-pronged instrument with spiritual importance.
He joined his first band, the Zutu Brothers (Encyclopædia Britannica says it was the Cyclones), as a singer at the age of 16. From then he was always in one band or another, sometimes doing odd jobs on the side as well, including chicken farming. Hence the name of his 1972 band, the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band.
He played mostly covers of American rock and soul tunes, such as Otis Redding or Elvis Presley, until he was in the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band. There he introduced the innovation of adapting traditional Shona music to modern rock instrumentation.
He worked with guitarist Joshua Dube (Leopard Man's Africa Music Guide says Jonah Sithole) to transcribe the sounds of the chief instrument of traditional Shona music, the mbira to the electric guitar. He also started singing primarily in the Shona language, rather than in English.