“I Shot the Sheriff” follows a narrative. Bob Marley confesses to having shot Sheriff John Brown, in self-defense, but denies having killed the deputy, the person the town is actually trying to try him for.
Later on, in 1974, Marley explained that: “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.”
But Bob Marley was rather cagey about what his song really meant. Before expounding on the point about shooting the police, he actually made a broader point, as fully quoted in Wailing Blues “The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers By John Masouri”: “The message is a kind of diplomatic statement. You have to kind of suss things out. ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ is like I shot wickedness. It’s not really a sheriff; it’s the elements of wickedness because people been judging you and you can’t stand it no more and you explode. You just explode.”
Also, Marley’s ex-girlfriend has claimed that “I Shot the Sheriff” is actually about birth control. We will never know.