They met in a St. Olaf College dorm, played in a band together at school parties and ended up as educators in Phoenix. Now Herb Ronnell and Pat Devon have teamed up on a powerful, timely new single, "A Big Change."
Inspired by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ronnell and Devon wanted to create a positive song that celebrated Blackness and addressed racial injustice.
"I always call Herb 'the Melody Man,' " Devon said of pianist-singer Ronnell. "He played some music on the piano, and in typical fashion, he will hum and scat and sing jibber-jabber, and I'll put words to the sound. With how close this resonated with us with George Floyd, there was a lot of energy there, a lot of passion, a lot of sadness. This one happened quick."
Ronnell's melody weaves in an echo of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as he sits at a grand piano crooning in his sweet, hopeful tenor, "I know, I know a big change is coming."
Rapper Devon drops a few verses about appreciating the value of work, needing leaders to lead and bringing cops to justice. And the two musicians weave in snippets of a recent fiery speech from Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.
Imagine John Legend collaborating with Common, only with a smaller budget.
The Floyd incident shook Devon, who graduated from Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis and used to get his haircut around the corner from 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where Floyd was pinned to the ground by police officers and took his final breaths.
"It rang so close to home," Devon said. "It was very surreal to think that me, my brother, my cousins, we could have very well been in that barber chair that day of the George Floyd chaos."
Two weeks ago, Devon and his wife visited that "sacred space" in Minneapolis. "It was wild to think that these blocks where I used to hang out with my friends, this is where it all took place."
Ronnell felt an indirect connection to Floyd as well, since he used to salsa dance at Conga Latin Bistro in northeast Minneapolis, where Floyd later worked as a bouncer.
Even though he grew up mostly in Houston, Devon — Patrick Devon Bass — had siblings who went to St. Olaf and Carleton colleges in Northfield. After graduating, he taught English at Minneapolis North High and Osseo Learning Center before heading to Arizona, where he is now an assistant principal in the Mesa school district.
Ronnell — Herbert Ronnell Washington — is from Phoenix, where a high school music teacher recommended the music program at St. Olaf. After earning his degree, he headed back to the Sun Belt, where he has been affiliated with the Phoenix Boys Choir (he was once a member) for seven years, the past year as artistic director.
At St. Olaf in the '00s, Ronnell and Devon were members of a band called Fellas & A Lady, which they describe as having a "pre-Black Eyed Peas" sound. Since they ended up in Arizona, the two pals occasionally get together and make music. They've worked with Jordin Sparks and Tori Kelly.
Devon — who has had a series of stage names including Ice Daddy and Platinum Pat — has released one solo album, "Vintage Vibes from the Vault + Volume Won," with another one, "Where We Going Next," in the works.
Ronnell and Devon made a video of "A Big Change" in the Great Hall where the Phoenix Boys Choir performs. To add a Minneapolis touch, Devon wore a Rhymesayers hoodie in the clip while Ronnell sat at a grand piano in his quilted jacket.
"It's not flashy," Ronnell said of the video. "And it's black and white to represent where we are today.
"We want to be heard and continue the dialogue that Black Lives Matter. Once the riots and protests stop, then it's easy to get back to no change happening in the country."
"A Big Change" is available only on YouTube, not on any streaming services.