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Introduction to Anthropology

16.4 Anthropology, Representation, and Performance

Introduction to Anthropology16.4 Anthropology, Representation, and Performance

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify how cultural identities, norms, values, and social structures are represented in art, music, and sports.
  • Describe how art, music, and sports can function as means of resistance to dominant sociocultural forms and processes.

Art, music, and sports all articulate the experiences of people. One of these experiences might be resistance or rebellion. Whether it is a piece of art depicting a revolution, a rap song challenging the establishment, or a protest at a sporting event on a global stage, expression of the need for change are common in contemporary culture. This section will explore cultural identities; the use of art, music, and sports as resistance; and the representations created by each specialization.

Cultural Identities

Think about sporting team uniforms or a clothing style worn by members of a musical group. Each outfit on its own may not be distinct or significant, but when worn by a group of athletes or musicians and their fans, they become a source of identity. Since prehistoric times, art, music, and sports have been a source of cultural identity. Arts and sports have been intertwined with several human rights movements and the push for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Music has been a means of coded language for escape. Sports have long been a platform for cultural identity and has presented opportunities for cultural evolution and resistance. The Olympics are just one example of a sporting event that is linked deeply with national identity and nation pride.

A delegation of people march with a flag. Behind them, other groups of people stand with flags.
Figure 16.20 The opening ceremonies of the Olympic games are celebrations of national identity and nation pride. (credit: “The team of Chile at the opening ceremony of the 1912 Summer Olympics” by photographer of IOC/Official Olympic Report/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Art as Resistance

Art is often used as an act of resistance. Graffiti and hip-hop are two forms of artistic expression that have been viewed as acts of resistance in modern times. The practice of graffiti as it is known today is reminiscent of ancient cave painting, as both are drawings, depictions, and writings on a wall. Ancient graffiti can help archaeologists understand general levels of literacy among a population of people or provide linguistic anthropologists with insight into the development of language through time.

While writings on walls is an ancient practice, graffiti became a popular form of cultural expression in Western countries in the 1960s. Modern graffiti is often performed in public view, as it is intended to make a statement. Today, during most political uprisings, researchers are able to easily find graffiti expressing views that inform and shape the political movement. Although many appreciate the communicative and artistic qualities of graffiti, others view it as visual pollution, and graffiti continues to be met with opposition.

One of the most iconic modern graffiti artists is Banksy, whose art is depicted in Figure 16.24. Banksy is the pseudonym of an English street artist who has been active for more than three decades (Ellsworth-Jones 2013). His identity remains unconfirmed. His work began to appear in the early 1990s in Bristol, England, and can now be found in cities around the world, including London, New York, and Paris. Based on reports from those who have secured interviews with him, Banksy views his art as an act of rebellion. He was often in trouble as a teenager, which is when he first began exploring art. His art typically responds to social or cultural issues. One example is his series in New Orleans, Louisiana, which critiqued the government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Spray painted image on brick wall of Grim Reaper figure with a bright yellow smiley face.
Figure 16.21 This mural by graffiti artist Banksy references both the Grim Reaper and the yellow “smiley face.” (credit: “Banksy - Grin Reaper With Tag” by Szater/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Music as Resistance

Hip-hop is a form of music that has consistently served as a means of protesting injustice toward people of color. From its inception in the 1970s at neighborhood block parties, hip-hop has rapidly spread worldwide to influence various cultures, transitioning from the margins of American culture to a central element of global pop culture. The culture of hip-hop offers possibilities for rich anthropological exploration, including linguistics factors, performance, music, and lyricism. The messages expressed by hip-hop often include complex social commentaries.

With increased representation has come increased acceptance of hip-hop as a respected art form. In 2018, rap artist Kendrick Lamar was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his album DAMN. and lauded by former president Barack Obama (Hubbard 2019). His fourth album release, DAMN. demonstrated why some call him one of the most influential rappers of his time. Perhaps better known is Public Enemy, the mid-1980s rap group created by Chuck D and Flavor Flav. The group’s lyrics often cite their political beliefs and deep-seated opinions about American racism and the American media.

The evolution of hip-hop can be observed in many countries and societies. In the 1980s, it first began appearing in Japan and the Middle East. In Japan, it is thought to have begun with Hiroshi Fujiwara, who had an appreciation for old-school hip-hop and began to play it publicly. In the Middle East, some call it Arab rap or Arabic hip-hop. Heavily influenced by Western culture, these artistic representations demonstrate the vast and culturally diverse adoption of hip-hop as art and expression. Klash, the Muslim rapper shown in Figure 16.25, is well known in Middle Eastern cultures for telling the story of Muslim people through his artistry. Rap is not a subculture but a media and method for telling a story and at times expressing the resistance of a group of people.

Group of four men, three wearing suits.
Figure 16.22 Muslim rapper Klash with fellow rap artist Loon. From its origins in American inner cities, rap has spread around the globe. (credit: “klash with loon in jeddah city” by Ahmed550055/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Even more recently, Native American hip-hop has been a medium for Native Americans to tell their story and preserve the history of their peoples. Founded in American rap and hip-hop culture, this new form of expression has been embraced by rappers throughout Native American communities. It has been used to tell stories, explain history, and even encourage political activism on social issues.

Sports as Resistance

Throughout time, sports have been a global focal point for resistance. The Olympics have repeatedly been a site of global resistance and a setting for challenging societal norms and expectations. In Figure 16.26, Black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists respectively, are depicted raising black-gloved fists during their medal ceremony as the US national anthem plays (Smith 2011). This gesture became known as the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute. Smith later described his raised, black-gloved fist as a symbol of support for all those who are and have been oppressed. Smith and Carlos made their demonstration in response to human rights violations perpetuated in the United States. Another example of resistance was seen four years later, when Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in Major League Baseball, wrote in his autobiography, recalling the opening game of his first World Series championship: “As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world” (Robinson [1972] 1995, xxiv).

Mural on a wall depicting three athletes with medals around their necks. Two bow their heads and hold their fists up on the air.
Figure 16.23 When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists at their Olympic medal ceremonies in 1968, they publicly expressed support for oppressed people and resistance to a culture viewed as perpetuating that oppression. (credit: “IMGP7613-olympics-mural” by Rae Allen/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

For many, a more familiar act of protest is likely NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the singing of the nation anthem in 2016 following the shooting deaths of Black men Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castille at the hands of police officers (Lief 2019). In 2016, approximately 68 percent of all NFL players were Black (Gertz 2017). Kaepernick continued to kneel during the anthem for the remainder of the season. His gesture was a symbol of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to end police brutality against Black people and other forms of racially motivated violence in the United States. Initially, feedback regarding Kaepernick’s gesture within the sports world was negative. However, following the death of George Floyd in 2020, there has been an increased interest in understanding systemic oppression. This had led to initiatives by organizations such as the NFL, Black Lives Matter, and others to support inclusion and open dialogues about racism. Throughout the seasons following Kaepernick’s initial act of kneeling, it became common practice in the world of professional sports for athletes to kneel in solidarity. This included Black players and some White players.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were a demonstration of social stratification. Media coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics reported on the less-than-acceptable environmental, safety, and health conditions. Athletes from more developed nations openly criticized the unsanitary and inhospitable conditions of the housing and training facilities, which included unpotable water sources, trash in commons areas, and dirty and unsanitary dormitories. While some protested silently, others used their global notoriety to publicly protest the conditions. The images and stories provided from Rio by journalists and mainstream media sources showed garbage-ridden streets, unsanitary rooms and facilities, and irreparably damaged buildings. For Rio, the Olympics were supposed to be a pinnacle of national pride and a positive contribution to the global stage. For many who attended, the event proved to be far less than the Olympic image depicted in popular imagination.

Integral Features

Art, music, and sports can themselves be forms of resistance and at the same time can display evidence of historical resistance. A protest, a cultural statement, the overthrow of a regime—all can be found in, and at times have even been started by, works of art, music, and sports. From the ancient Romans to professional American football players, people have used these mediums to fight for their causes and to ensure that the histories of their plights are recorded in the archives of time.

Art, music, and sports have told the stories of people since prehistoric times. Ingrained in the human experience, these mediums have been used to establish cultural and national identity. The images in art, the words of song, and the traditions of sport have had significant impacts on established norms and senses of personal and group identity. These aspects of the human condition are so foundational that each has been used as a form of resistance. Art, music, and sports have each contributed to the development of people and societies in important ways, and can each reveal important aspects of both past and current cultures.

Mini-Fieldwork Activity

A Study of Ethnomusicology


Music is one of the most expressive and diverse forms of art. For this activity, do the following:

  1. Review ethnomusicological study techniques.
  2. Conduct your own ethnomusicological fieldwork. This can be done by interacting with musicians, attending a music event virtually or in person, or interviewing audience members at a musical performance. Interview both musicians and audience members about the meaning of the music. What did they hear? How did it make them feel? What did it make them want to do? Record the results of your interviews.
  3. Additionally, record your own response to the music. What did you hear? How did it make you feel? What does it make you want to do?
  4. Collect the information and write a 3–5-page comparative reflection paper on what you learned from your interviews and how they compare and contrast to your own experience and discoveries.

All music-making activities are appropriate, whether a formal or informal concert, a street performance, or gospel singing in church. You should maintain a field journal to record data, observations, and analysis.

Research and Literature Review Activity

  1. Pick two (2) different examples of visual art, from the same time period but different socioeconomic microcultures, to compare and contrast.
  2. Write a 3–5-page summary paper in which you do the following:
    • Identify people and/or studies that have reported on anthropological finds relevant to the images you selected.
    • Describe the evolution of the art form you are analyzing from an early time.
    • Explain how the anthropological studies you cite compare with other anthropological study approaches.
    • Address how the art studied is an evolutionary example of the human experience.
    • Evaluate what you perceive to be the future of the art as it continues to develop and evolve in future generations.


Basketball or Nothing. 2019. Philadelphia: WorkShop Content Studios. Netflix, 6 episodes.

Rice, Timothy. 2014. Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stone, Ruth M. Theory for Ethnomusicology. 2008. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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