Behind the Meaning of “I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley

Here are excerpts from Jacob Uitti’s analysis of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Read the full article at American Songwriter. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

What a time to be alive.

As of this writing, protests have lined the streets after the recent United States Supreme Court ruling, overturning Roe v. Wade. This comes on the heels of massive global protests concerning the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and general unrest due to the meaning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s hard to escape the fact that everyday people are at odds with authority figures throughout the country, and the world.

And it’s from similar unrest that the song “I Shot the Sheriff” was born from the artistic prowess of Jamaican songwriter and performer, Bob Marley. Let’s dive into the meaning of the meaningful track.


“I Shot the Sheriff” is a protest song written by Marley, who released the track in 1973 on the Bob Marley and the Wailers album, Burnin’.

Of the song, Marley himself said, “I want to say I shot the police but the government would have made a fuss so I said ‘I shot the sheriff’ instead… but it’s the same idea: justice.”

Feeling persecuted, Marley wrote the protest song about self-defense, meaning that the protagonist in the song saw the “Sheriff” aiming at him, so he shot first. But the gun violence wasn’t blind: he did not “shoot the deputy.” Meaning, that he was not indiscriminately firing at all people in uniform, just those looking to take his life.

It’s certainly a touchy subject—especially today—but the meaning is born, as Marley says, out of a sense of justice and self-defense, not rage.

Ice-T and Hypocrisy

In 1992, as the controversial song “Cop Killer” by rapper Ice-T was becoming more and more famous, Ice-T’s supporters pointed to Marley’s song as evidence of prior popular releases touching on similar justice-minded subject matter.

Marley’s song was often cited by Ice-T’s supporters, who claimed hypocrisy, saying there was not the same amount of outrage for the reggae track that dealt with the same subject matter as there was for the rap track, as rap and Hip-Hop had yet to take over as the main form of entertainment in 1992. (Now, though, rap is the predominant music and culture in many areas of the world, its trap percussion and beats have even entered country music, featured on likely and unlikely sources like Morgan Wallen’s “You Proof“).

Birth Control Skepticism?

In a twist of fate, Marley’s former girlfriend Esther Anderson claimed in 2012 that the lyrics, Sheriff John Brown always hated me / For what, I don’t know / Every time I plant a seed / He said, ‘Kill it before it grow,’ actually had to do with birth control and her use of the pill. And that Marley supposedly substituted the word “doctor” with sheriff. [. . .]

For full review, see

[Photo above: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.]

6 thoughts on “Behind the Meaning of “I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley

  1. I beleive his meaning of : He shot the Sherriff “goverment control” but not the Deputy “under that contol”. The Sherriff hated him out of fear of his seeds which were the words of his songs that he planted in the minds of the Deputy ” every day people” that threatend the Sherriff saying kill it before it grows, “taking away goverment control”. So He shot the Sherriff in “self defense” of goverment control.

  2. Mine is the simplest understanding and I held it ever since I heard the song for the first time. That he wanted to grow Marijuana and the sheriff just couldn’t let him do it peacefully. Anyway it’s certainly a creative way to protest against authority.

  3. My comment about the meaning of the lyrics I shot the sheriff I thought after reading is on a biography was the disputed hand between Bunny wailer and Peter tosh where bunny didn’t wanted to travel,Peter probably here and there so it’s interfering with the process of growing lyrically so he fired the sheriff which is Bonnie and Peter quit so in a sense he shot bunny wailer which was was the sheriff but he didn’t shoot Peter tosh which was the deputy because he just walk away from the group, Bob Marley music was about his lifestyle how people treat him say about him and did to him, like for example the words holy ground was my bed rock stone was my pillow he actually slept on the ground and The Rock became his pillow, working on a forklift and the night shift he work for Chrysler in Delaware, the stone that the builder refuse, was the way his brothers and sisters treated him from his father’s side, ambush in the night that’s when they try to assassinate him, so in conclusion the meaning of the song I shot the sheriff was about him and his two friends Peter tosh and Bunny wailer.

  4. Literature has a million meaning, because its everyday life thing. But of cause the writer has got his true meaning.

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