From Cleopatra’s beaded headdress to Diana Ross’s iconic afro, hair has been an emblem of power, rebellion, and pride throughout history. In our new series, Stranded, we’re profiling people whose strands tell a story.
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 plays throughout the background of your life and lingers, never quite weighty enough to incite anything other than a twinge of a memory. And then there’s the third: music that pours into you, filling gaps in yourself 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, Georgia-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 self-described it as confetti, “because we felt 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 mesmerising, ephemeral quality to St. Beauty’s sound—it’s gossamer-light at times and deeply melancholy at others, but never crosses over to 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 verbalise it so people can listen to it and relate.”
The making of St. Beauty sounds like the plotline of a feel-good film about the powers of manifestation. Opening scene: 16-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 join shifts at a vintage store in Atlanta, Georgia. 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 Wondaland Records, and 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.” This mix of fearlessness and vulnerability is exactly what makes St. Beauty’s music so fresh and needed in a current space that veers towards 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, it’s Diana Ross).
Like Ross, both Belle and Valentino wear their hair natural, though styled differently. “I try to wash my hair every two and a half weeks or so,” Valentino says about her routine. “I use Mane Choice or Pantene, which I really like, then I’ll use some argan and jojoba oil as my moisturiser. I’ll blow-dry it sometimes or I’ll put SheaMoisture (coming to Australia soon) in it and bantu knot it while it is 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, and 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, she’s 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. The result is mesmerising—so mesmerising that Belle says people frequently get into arguments in the comments section of her Instagram page about the technique; so mesmerising that Lupita Nyong’o once asked her how she styled her hair at a party, then debuted a similar-looking hairstyle the press dubbed as “Wakanda knots” for her character in the blockbuster Black Panther. But though Belle and Valentino freely embrace their natural hair textures now, that wasn’t always the case.
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, then 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, and meant that 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. It wasn’t until college that her paradigm shift happened, thanks to Instagram. “I was on Instagram and I saw this girl, she had this really beautiful Afro, and I was like, ‘I can do that! Let me just do this.’ I tried it for one day and I felt really good. I felt powerful, I felt beautiful, I felt great. I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this now—this is me.’”
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 mum 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 favourite.)
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 and Valentino’s hair journeys aren’t dissimilar to that of the majority of black women across America, mostly because our society’s narrow definition of beauty has included 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. But with the rise of media platforms like Instagram and YouTube that make it easier to find and discover representation, as well as a new wave of women like Belle and Valentino who are unabashedly prideful about their hair, things are changing—slowly, yes, but changing nonetheless. “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 is 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. During a break in shooting, Valentino emerges from the dressing room with her own hair pick, fluffing her curls in the mirror. It’s a powerful visual, and one that’s quickly recreated in a final shot. As the click of the camera captures the duo and Solange’s voice wafts through the speakers, I can’t help but feel that I’m witnessing a sort of alchemy happen—a cumulating of two women’s journeys from self-doubt to self-assurance that’s only on the very surface about their hair. 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.