The Come Up is Refinery29’s new series featuring rising female artists who are as badass and inspiring as their music is. This is our first instalment.
It was during the fifth episode of HBO’s current cult hit Insecure that we learned just how messy the protagonist Issa can be when she cheats on her boyfriend...with her ex. The plot twist was a seminal moment for the show, sparking endless Twitter debates and hashtag wars. But what also made the scene unforgettable was the way Issa confronted herself after the act. She slowly raised her eyes to meet her own in the mirror, her brown skin shimmering in eerie light as two dreamy voices crooned the lyrics, “Tell me where'd ya go when you said goodbye? I never thought I'd lose you…” in the background, fading the episode into the credits. It was perhaps one of modern Black television’s most raw and haunting moments.
That song, “Borders,” was as definitive for Insecure as it was for its creators, rising R&B duo St. Beauty. On the set of their Refinery29 photoshoot in Soho this month, 26-year-old Isis Valentino and 24-year-old Alex Belle say that the series’ use of the aching yet enchanting breakup ballad was the perfect way to introduce their sound to a wider audience. “We needed that, because when we first started making music, we didn’t feel like any genre quite encompassed our sound,” says Belle. “We even came up with our own name for our genre: Confetti. Because confetti has so many phases. When it blows out, it’s exciting; when it’s falling, you feel awe; when it hits the ground, it’s mellow tranquility…and then when it’s time to throw it all away, you feel melancholy. All of those moods...that is our music.”
Alex: Elizabeth and James Tristan Hoodie Waffle Stitch Sweater in Bright Red, available at Shopbop; Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini pants; Tibi Frank Patent Leather Mules in Tangerine, available at Net-A-Porter. Isis: 3.1 Phillip Lim dress and pants; Tibi Frank Metallic Crinkled Leather Mules in Navy, available at Net-A-Porter.
Now, the Atlanta natives are primed to provide the soundtrack for another major moment: Black women ruling the world in 2018. It seems as though mainstream culture has (finally — finally) begun to realise what we have known forever — that Black women are not only a minority group with an aesthetic and traditions to borrow from, but the backbone of popular culture. Now, memes abound of congresswoman Maxine Waters “reclaiming her time” and non-conforming Black female artists are topping the Billboard charts with surprisingly honest music. (See: SZA and “The Weekend.”) So while St. Beauty’s first-ever, 10-track EP Running To The Sun might seem long overdue to rabid fans (“Borders” has nearly 1.2 million streams on Spotify alone), the timing could perhaps not be more perfect for two Black girls with natural hair, a penchant for Diana Ross-inspired vintage, and a collection of soulful yet danceable tracks about everything from bad hair days to, yes, fuckboys, to make their official debut.
“It did feel meaningful for us to have our first ever song feature on a show made by a Black woman, for Black women,” Belle says as a makeup artist applies electric teal shadow to her lids. She is thoughtful but soft spoken, often giggling nervously and admitting that she’s a “quiet Pisces who needs a lot of alone time” — though between takes, she frequently floats toward the crew of female publicists and managers chatting on the sidelines. “Timing is everything, and Black women have been waiting a long time to get to this moment where we’re at right now. And I definitely feel that we are a part of that moment.”
The two halves of St. Beauty met in 2012, when they were 21 and 19, working at the Atlanta vintage shop Poor Little Rich Girl. Valentino’s friend owned the store and helped her get the retail gig; Belle, meanwhile, landed there during an interlude from college on a day when her mother was driving her around to help her find a vocal coach. During a stop at Poor Little Rich Girl, the owners mentioned that they knew a few folks in R&B singer Janelle Monae’s circle.
They offered Belle an internship, and soon, she and Valentino were swapping music playlists and blasting their favourite artists like Stevie Wonder, Queen, Santigold, Sade, and Janis Joplin on the shop’s speakers. When the store decided to become more of a neighbourhood cultural hub by hosting music showcases for local talent in their basement, Belle decided she wanted to perform — and asked if Valentino knew anyone who played guitar.
“I knew how to play because I’d asked for a guitar on my 15th birthday when I was going through a big Prince, Jimi Hendrix, rock and roll phase,” Valentino says. She is obviously the older of the two — an assertive, “outspoken Scorpio” as fond of theorising about the “primitive” state of society’s views on race as she is of fluffing up her curls in the mirror between photo sessions. “So I volunteered to help her out. But I had never, ever performed in front of people, and Alex had only sung in public a few times before. As soon as we did our thing together, though, people were asking if we were a band. So eventually, we became one.”
Valentino dreamed up the name St. Beauty after a day of listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Bird of Beauty” on repeat. Though Belle says she was hesitant about the name at first, after consulting with their Twitter followers (of course), the group decided to stick with the moniker. They began to write and record songs together and perform them at Poor Little Rich Girl showcases until, one day, Monáe happened to show up.
From there, things were very “organic and natural,” says Belle. Monáe got to know the pair and eventually offered to sign them to her record label Wondaland, which also features artists like singer/instrumentalist Roman and GianArthur and R&B singer Jidenna. St. Beauty’s first single “Going Nowhere” appeared on Wondaland’s collective EP “The Eephus” in 2015.
“We never even thought about pursuing other record deals because it immediately felt like home with Wondaland from the beginning,” Belle says. “And the crazy thing is, when I was 16, I met Janelle in a Target parking lot with my mum. At the time, I was a huge Janelle Monae fan, and after we met, I told my mom ‘I have this weird feeling I’m going to meet her again one day in some type of way.’ Fast forward, and she’s the one who discovered us and took us under her wing.”
Valentino adds that Monáe’s mentorship is more about showing than telling.
“Janelle Monáe just does not care what other people think — she’s going to do what she wants to do, and seeing that has inspired our mindset that we can dress how we want to dress, sound how we want to sound, be whoever we want to be,” Valentino says. “She’s paved the way for a lot of artists to be unapologetically themselves, and she doesn’t always get enough credit for her impact.”
Valentino adds that during their last meeting with Monae, she advised the girls to not worry about anyone’s opinions of their new EP — instead, she hopes that they’ll just enjoy the ride and soak it in. But if the girls are planning to take note of opinions on Running To The Sun, they won’t have anything to worry about. Lyrically, anyone who’s ever experienced drop-to-your-knees-sobbing heartbreak or simply dating someone who’s an inconsistent texter will hear themselves in the music. (The intro opens with an exasperated Belle and Valentino sigh-ing statements like, “What’s the meaning of all of this?” “My hair looks terrible!” and “Why is this nigga texting me?”) Sonically, it’s infused with neo-soul, electro, and even reggae, as apt for that magic hour when you’re putting makeup on before going out as it is for swaying with your eyes closed at a music festival — or as the accompaniment to a late night booty call session.
“We wanted this project to show that we’re not picture perfect,” says Valentino. “Yes, you see us on social media as these two women confident in their skin and their natural hair. And we are. But we’re also awkward. And that’s relatable. We’re like any other Black girls just trying to figure this shit out. And I think that attracts people to us and our music.”
While their sisterhood is perhaps one of the most important qualities about St. Beauty — after all, it’s been awhile since we’ve seen a successful girl group actually succeed, never mind a Black one — they admit that working together is not always easy.
“We kind of struggle, because I’m the oldest in my family and she’s the youngest,” Valentino says. “I’m very hard on myself, and sometimes I’m like that with her, which I’m trying to work on.”
Adds Belle, “We’re friends, but we’re also still learning each other’s personalities. That can be hard, but it’s important to us both to be upfront with one another when we feel uncomfortable, and we have a manager who can be the middleman if we need it!”
There is one thing St. Beauty does always share, though: A love of a look. It was vintage fashion that brought them together in the first place, and that’s perhaps why they’re each drawn to funky, layered ensembles that feel like otherworldly takes on a past era. During the shoot, Belle — who keeps her hair short and is a fan of all-natural beauty products like tea tree oil and black soap — is attracted to all things bubblegum pop and colourful. On the other hand, Valentino — who sleeps with her hair in bantu knots to achieve that halo of curls — leans more toward shades of black and names Audrey Hepburn as one of her many fashion influencers. (But both women have a reverence for Diana Ross, her style in Mahogany, and her impact on Black women.)
For all of their throwback knowledge about music, fashion, and beauty, however, both Belle and Valentino are still undeniably earnest — and youthful. Both laugh nervously and avoid eye contact when asked about their dating lives, though Belle swears “No one is ever in my DMs!” Still, they each have a self-awareness and ease in their brown skin that took many Black women much older than them decades to reach. And though they are quick to insist on their awkwardness, they’re also aware of where the confidence that they do have might have come from.
“Growing up in Atlanta, I was around a lot of Black people, so I was always very aware of my race,” Valentino says. “It wasn’t until I moved to England for a few years with my family that I realised just how hard it is to largely be defined by your skin tone and hair. Alex and I had no idea what we were doing when we got into this, so it blows my mind that people are accepting us with open arms...two Black girls with natural hair playing instruments! What?!”
She pauses to clear her throat as she gets choked up. “I’m grateful to all of the women like Janelle Monae and Issa Rae and Diana Ross who have led the charge before us. And I’m grateful we can now be in a position to continue to lead that.”
And then, she and Belle are each off to change for their last shot of the day. Each emerges in their new looks and, as if in sync, half-skip, half-glide back onto the set. It’s as if they are running, quite literally, to the sun. And their light is only getting brighter.