Meet St. Beauty, The Musical Duo Redefining Empowering Hair

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

There are three types of music in the world. The first kind zips through you like a current, exhilarating you for a second but dissipating into steam as quickly as it began. The second song plays throughout the background of your life and lingers, never quite weighty enough to incite anything other than a twinge of memory. And then there’s the third: music that pours into you, filling in gaps you never knew existed, making you feel sad, or wistful, or achingly happy, but most of all, making you feel. St. Beauty’s music falls squarely into the third category, and you only need to listen to one of their songs to understand why. The Atlanta-based duo consists of Alex Belle and Isis Valentino, two modern, empowered women with soulful voices, eclectic styles (a mix of modern silhouettes and vintage prints), and enviable hair (more on that later).

The music they create under their band St. Beauty doesn’t fit the confines of one genre. Rather, they’ve described it as “confetti” because they feel like confetti has so many different phases: “When it blows out, it’s exciting; falling, it’s this moment of being in awe; and then it’s on people’s clothes, on the floor, and it’s swept up and thrown away.” Like confetti, there’s a mesmerizing, ephemeral quality to St. Beauty’s sound—it’s gossamer-light at times and deeply melancholy at others, but it never crosses over to the point of wallowing. It’s music that mirrors your own complicated, hard-to-define emotions, and the duo is teetering on the brink of mainstream success because of it. “We want to inspire people with our music,” Valentino says. “When we go through something, we want to verbalize it so people can listen to it and relate.”

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Makeup credits: Fenty Beauty Pro Filt'r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation in 400, Glossier Cloud Paint in Haze, Dior Diorskin Nude Air Luminizer Powder, Dior Brow Pencil in Noir Black, Dior Addict Lacquer Stick in Black Coffee

The making of St. Beauty sounds like the plotline of a feel-good film about the powers of manifestation. Opening scene: Sixteen-year-old Alex Belle is leaving a Target with her mom and runs into singer Janelle Monaé in the parking lot. She tells Monaé how much she loves her and leaves feeling inspired about her own musical journey (foreshadowing!).

Fast-forward a few years, and Belle meets Isis Valentino through their joint shifts at a vintage store in Atlanta. They discover a shared love of music and start performing at weekly showcases; get discovered by—yes, you guessed it—Janelle Monaé, who immediately signs them to her record label, Wondaland Records; soon after, they’re sharing their music with the world. Roll credits.

Even Belle and Valentino themselves still seem a bit surprised at the kismet that appears to be guiding their musical journey. “I was always fascinated by musicians, but I didn’t even start singing until St. Beauty happened because I’ve always been afraid,” Valentino, the softer-spoken one of the duo, tells me on the set of their Stranded shoot. “I think just pushing through, getting over those little humps, like when I played guitar for the first time in front of people. Making those little victories gives you the push to do the next thing. That’s what I like about myself: I try new things even if I am afraid.”

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This mix of fearlessness and vulnerability is exactly what makes St. Beauty’s music so fresh and needed in a current space that veers toward either too- slick or saccharine-sweet. Their own personal aesthetics represent this duality as well—Valentino cites Audrey Hepburn as a beauty icon, while Belle loves Santigold and M.I.A. (both girls profess their loves for the ever-glamorous Diana Ross, however, because, well, she’s Diana Ross).

Makeup credits: Fenty Beauty Pro Filt'r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation in 400, Guerlain Terracotta Bronzing Powder in Shade 7, Dior Diorskin Nude Air Luminizer Powder, Dior Brow Pencil in Noir Black, Dior Addict Lacquer Stick in Rolling and Tease

Like Ross, Belle and Valentino wear their hair natural, though they style it differently. “I try to wash my hair every two and a half weeks or so,” Valentino says about her routine. “I use Mane Choice ($13) or Pantene ($6), which I really like; then I’ll use some argan and jojoba oil as my moisturizer. I’ll blow-dry it sometimes, or I’ll put SheaMoisture ($13) in it and Bantu-knot it while it’s wet.” Belle also washes her hair every two to three weeks and swears by SheaMoisture, as well as natural oils, though she prefers coconut. “I let it air-dry a little bit; then I put Bantu knots in it, and I’ll let that sit overnight and take them out the next day,” she says. “Then I comb it out, let it breathe, and that’s it.”

Recently, however, Bella has added an extra step to her routine using a self- discovered technique. “When I first started wearing an Afro, I didn’t wear these little ball things on my head, but I gradually just started to shape my fro the way I wanted it to look—the way I thought it fit me,” she explains. The technique involves “stretching” her hair out into sections and then rolling them back into “little balls” close to her head. The key to perfecting this look? “Doing it all over your head, and making sure [the balls] perfectly line up,” she says.

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Growing up in Atlanta, Belle said the beauty “ideals” were obvious: If you didn’t have light skin, European features, and straighter, longer hair naturally, you would try to get as close as possible to that standard as you could. “My hair fell out from time to time because I would put a lot of heat on my hair, and it got really thin at one point,” she says. “It just wasn’t good.”

The lack of representation or instruction on how to style natural hair in media and major magazines didn’t help. It meant she resorted to wearing her hair in the same messy bun every day because she didn’t know what else to do. “I thought it was safe, and I was afraid to try new things with my hair,” she says.

Valentino had a similar experience and resorted to getting her hair tips from her dad, who meant well but didn’t always offer the best product recommendations. “I have the same kind of hair as my father—it’s really, really thick—and my mom has fine hair, so I think she was just like, ‘What do I do with this?” she says. “I was using bad hair products with alcohol as the first ingredient, but I didn’t know that at the time.”

She also speaks about getting relaxers for her hair up until seven years ago, when her moment of clarity arrived. “I was watching YouTube videos and people were showing how you can do your hair like this and you don’t need to have a relaxer, and I was like, Wow, I can do that too,” she says. “You actually see that their texture is close to yours, and you start to see the possibility. I think YouTube really changed the game for me.” (These days, she says she still watches for inspiration—Natural85’s videos are a personal favorite.)

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Both women agree that when they fully embraced their natural hair and felt skilled in how to style and care for it, a sense of liberation followed. “I definitely felt empowered,” Belle says. “I was just like, This is me! When you feel like yourself and you don’t care about what people think about your hair— that’s empowering.”

Belle’s and Valentino’s hair journeys aren’t dissimilar to those of many Black women across America, mostly because our society’s narrow definition of beauty has excluded embracing natural hair. Even in our current day and age, curls are described as “unruly” and meant to be “tamed” in messaging from major beauty companies, braids are deemed unprofessional for the workplace, and natural hair is being Photoshopped out of editorial campaigns.

“I think that there are a lot more Black women now embracing their Blackness and being unafraid to show it,” Belle says. “Black hair has been a really big taboo for a long time, and people haven’t accepted it. Now Black women are coming out and they’re saying, ‘This is my hair; this is what grows out of my head—who are you to say that it’s not normal?’”

To bring everything full circle, allow me to describe Belle and Valentino on the set of their Stranded shoot. The pride in their hair is evident from the second they step in front of the camera. Though there’s a hairstylist on the set, it’s clear both girls know exactly how to style their hair with or without professional help—an even more powerful moment knowing what they’ve overcome. They pose with ease, both individually and in sync, hands grazing their strands like precious cargo. At one point, Solange’s woeful, defiant anthem “Don’t Touch My Hair” plays over the speakers, and the room quiets; the weight of the moment isn’t lost on a single person.

Belle and Valentino are two Black women making music while proudly wearing their natural hair, redefining what beauty means to the next generation of women who look up to them—women who will hopefully grow up never feeling shame over their hair, or struggle with knowing how to style it. Perhaps Belle and Valentino themselves sum up their journeys best in their song “Stone Mountain”: “Head up in the clouds while I’m climbing / Eye to eye, my fears I’ve been facing / I don’t have the time to be wasting / What lies ahead is worth it.”

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