Growing up black in Germany was often an ego-crushing experience for singer Rob Pilatus, half of Milli Vanilli, the red-hot, European dance-soul duo whose first two singles have been Top 5 hits in the United States.
“Imagine being black without a black community--anywhere,” said Pilatus, 23, who was raised in Munich and retains a heavy German accent.
“If you’re grown, (the lack of roots) doesn’t matter so much. But when you’re young, you need something to identify with and I didn’t have it. I’m black and I’m German, but I had no (way to learn) what being black means.”
Son of a white German woman and black American soldier, Pilatus was adopted by a white German couple and raised in an almost totally white environment. “Nobody was keeping me away from black people,” he said. “There just aren’t many in Germany. Without anything to identify with, you grow up thinking maybe you’re different and maybe not as good as everybody else.”
He sorely missed black heroes. “We learned about (German poet/dramatists) Goethe and Schiller,” he recalled. “But not about (black American writer) Maya Angelou. Later on it was exciting for me to discover there were black writers like her.”
Pilatus’ self-esteem was dealt some nasty blows by cruel schoolmates. “They called me Kunta Kinte (the black hero in ‘Roots’),” he said. “That hurt. They saw me as different. When you’re young, you don’t like to feel different. If you’re different, you feel alone.”
The sudden, Cinderella-like success of Milli Vanilli (which also includes his partner Fab Morvan)--from the hit singles, from the fifth ranked album “Girl You Know It’s True” on the Billboard pop charts and a key spot on the summer Club MTV tour--hasn’t erased some of those bad memories. They are one reason Pilatus relishes the duo’s American success.
“I want to show my countrymen what has happened to us, what I’m capable of,” said Pilatus, who’s looking forward to a big German tour. “The Germans are very critical. They like to drag acts down. They make you feel you’re not so good--not so important. But now we are important. We’re on top in the United States.
“They didn’t think I could do this--or much of anything. I want them to see that they were wrong--very, very wrong.”
By his late teens, Pilatus realized that the picture of American blacks he learned in Germany was somewhat distorted.
“They don’t have enough information, so they can’t teach what’s really happening. You hear blacks are good in sports and good singers,” he said, a tinge of sadness in his voice as he recalled the painful early years. “But you don’t hear about black lawyers or black politicians.
“I learned things later, but went through some hurt before I learned--before I had a better picture of black people and a better understanding of myself.”
Ironically, it was black pop stars from America that helped give young Pilatus confidence and inspiration in Germany--specifically the success of Michael Jackson.
“Suddenly Germany was excited by a black person, a hip black person,” Pilatus said, his voice more upbeat as he remembered a liberating point in his life. “Before they just knew the old stars, like Sammy Davis Jr., people that youngsters couldn’t relate to. Michael Jackson was bigger than you could ever believe in Germany. He opened the doors for black culture over there. Then Prince came along. Rap and hip-hip became accepted. But Michael started it all.
“When I was 16 (about seven years ago), suddenly it was OK to be black in Germany. It was trendy. It was even fun. Before that being black was hard work.”
Pilatus was anxious to do something in show business but had no real focus. Experimenting, he did some work as a deejay, dabbled in modeling but worked hard enough at break-dancing to become a champion. He earned an invitation to an international break-dancing competition in New York in 1984. During a side trip to Los Angeles he met Morvan, who was here for a dance seminar, at a disco.
“Something clicked between us,” Pilatus said, his manner now enthusiastic as he began tracing the events that led to his current success. “Maybe it’s because we’re both black people who grew up in foreign cities that don’t have too many blacks.”
Born in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and raised in Paris, Morvan, also 23, is the quiet one of the pair. Apparently, though, it’s not because he’s shy. Reportedly Morvan shies away from interviews because his English is limited.
After meeting in L.A., they hooked up again Munich, where they decided to work together, starting as background singers. But things moved slowly. Before adopting the name Milli Vanilli--which the duo says means “positive energy” in Turkish--they recorded an album in 1987 for a small German label. But it sold only a few thousand.
They got better results with Frank Farian, a veteran German record producer who had several lightweight pop hits in the ‘70s with a group called Boney M. The pair recorded an album that contained “Girl You Know It’s True,” a fluffy update of the old ‘70s Euro-disco sound, integrating elements of rap and with the trendy techno-pop trimmings.
Milli Vanilli signed with Arista in the United States after the single went to No. 1 in Germany. Ironically, Pilatus said, an Arista executive had rejected the album, but label president Clive Davis eventually overruled him.
“The German album did have some bad tracks,” Pilatus recalled. “But Clive saw something in it. He wasn’t happy with all of it so we dropped some tracks and did some new ones for the American version.” Some of the tracks from the original German album were also remixed.
Davis knew what he was doing. “Girl You Know It’s True” went to No. 2 in the United States in April and the follow-up, “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” went to No. 1 early this month.
Though most critics have dismissed the album as shallow, it does include some sizzling dance numbers. As expected, the intricately arranged rhythm tracks dominate. But the album--which has sold more than 1.7 million copies in this country--doesn’t tell us much about the singing skills of Pilatus or Morvan, who are limited to simplistic vocals.
Responding to charges that--like most dance-music stars--they’re lousy singers, Pilatus confidently insisted: “I’ve taken singing lessons. We can sing OK. These songs aren’t as easy to sing as people think they are. It does take some talent. I wish people understood that better.”
The pair’s harmony is interspersed with occasional raps by Morvan, whose mild-mannered style is in sharp contrast to the hard-nosed, bombastic delivery of Ameri can rappers.
But part of Milli Vanilli’s appeal is visual. The trim, handsome pair are tailor-made for MTV videos, and, in concert, female fans swoon over their exotic, chiseled looks that are enhanced by long, exotic braids. And they are terrific dancers.
For Pilatus, one rewarding sign about the duo’s success is the opportunity to permanently move to Los Angeles. When not on tour, he spends time engaged in one of his favorite pastimes--studying and absorbing American black culture.
“It might seem strange that something like that excites me but it does,” he insisted. “I identify with American blacks. Probably American blacks take their culture for granted--the music, the literature. They don’t know what it’s like not to be around your own culture--to be surrounded by a culture that’s not really yours--and not to be able to get at your own culture.
“I can’t tell you how frustrating that was for me. And I can’t explain how happy I am to be out of that situation. I’ll visit Germany, but I won’t live there again.”