Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was four years old. She was raised by her mother, who bought her a ukulele at age three. She began playing guitar and writing songs at age eight. She says that she may have been first inspired to play the guitar by the television show Hee Haw. In her native Cleveland she experienced frequent bullying and racially motivated assaults as a child.
Raised a Baptist, she attended an Episcopal high school and was accepted into the program A Better Chance, which sponsors students at college preparatory high schools away from their home communities. She graduated from Wooster School in Connecticut then attended Tufts University, majoring in Anthropology. While a student at Tufts, she busked in nearby spots, including Harvard Square and on MBTA Red Line platforms.