Zahara was born as Bulelwa Mkutukana in the Phumlani Informal Settlement outside of East London in Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she lived with her parents Nokhaya and Mlamli Mkutukana. She is the sixth of seven children. She displayed her love for singing at age 6. She first came to wider attention when she was appointed the lead singer of a local Sunday school choir in Phumlani. Her stage name means "blooming flower"; as a child she was known by the nickname "Spinach".
Her music is classified loosely as "Afrosoul" and she sings in her native language, Xhosa, as well as in English. Her music has been described as a mixture between the styles that have been popularized by Tracy Chapman, and India Arie.
Zahara's debut album Loliwe was released in 2011. The first issue sold out within 72 hours, and 19 days later, the album reached double platinum status in South Africa by surpassing the 100,000 sales mark. This made her the second musician after Brenda Fassie, who was also a Xhosa native, to reach this figure in such record time. Zahara released her first Live DVD which featured X-Factor USA contestant LeRoy Bell. The DVD reached platinum (according to the standards set by the Recording Industry of South Africa) in one day.
On 1 May 2012, at the annual South African Music Awards, Zahara won eight awards, including "Best Female Artist" and "Album of the Year". Zahara is the brand ambassador for the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital.