Nesta Robert Marley.
One need only speak his name to conjure up dank, dimly lit college dorm rooms where dreadlocked hippies try to sneak Thai sticks past watchful R.A.s as the offbeat guitar of One Love or Buffalo Soldier or Get Up Stand Up churns.
But the tragically short life and singular music of this reggae superstar are more than just props for rich kids playing at being Rastafarian. "Like Barack Obama, Bob Marley is a mixed-race archetype," Chris Salewicz writes in his biography, Bob Marley.
"The image of Bob Marley is seen across the planet as synonymous with that of a giant, fat spliff. . . . Bob's true rebel spirit lies in his devastatingly accurate depictions of ghetto life and official oppression and corruption."
As told by Salewicz, a former New Musical Express reporter who has also written a biography of Clash founder Joe Strummer, Marley's aesthetic was the unlikely product of a number of factors: his fatherless childhood on the unforgiving streets of Jamaica's Trench Town; his homeland's postcolonial violence (Marley, who tried to build bridges between Jamaica's two warring political parties, survived an assassination attempt in 1976); and his unusual faith — Rastafarians revere Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who died in 1975, as a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
Though melanoma, the deadly skin cancer, felled Marley in 1981 at age 36, Salewicz refuses to mourn what could have been: "He only departed this planet when he felt his vision of One World, One Love . . . was beginning in some quarters to be heard and felt."
If the durability of this vision is suspect — and if the author's love for his subject prevents him from calling Marley out for the egregious philandering that produced at least 10 children by numerous women — the unlikely life behind the dorm room poster is still well worth reading about.