Rep. Ilhan Omar Reflects on Prince's Legacy and How His Achievements Give Others a 'Sense of Limitlessness'

The Minnesota lawmaker has introduced legislation that would posthumously honor the singer with a Congressional Gold Medal

Ilhan Omar, Prince
Photo: KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty; Kevin Mazur/WireImage

One of the lawmakers behind an effort to posthumously honor Prince with a Congressional Gold Medal says the experience of introducing the required legislation is "surreal."

"One of the first movies I watched when I came to the United States was Purple Rain," Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar tells PEOPLE. "It was devoid of all context at the time when I watched it. Not only did I not speak a lot of English to fully understand, but obviously didn't understand the cultural context the movie was taking place in."

Following her family's escape from Somalia in 1995 and time spent in a refugee camp in Kenya, Omar, 39, moved to Minneapolis, Prince's hometown, two years after arriving in the U.S. There, she says, the singer's cultural influence came into sharp focus.

"His legacy and the love that people have for him in Minneapolis and our state is contagious," says Omar, a Democrat who began her first term in the House of Representatives in 2019. "There isn't a place that you can go in Minneapolis where you are not experiencing Prince."

On Tuesday, Omar — along with Minnesota's entire congressional delegation, including Sen. Amy Klobucharannounced legislation to recognize Prince, who died in 2016 at 57, for his "legacy of musical achievement" and for leaving "an indelible mark on Minnesota and American culture."

"This whole thing feels a bit surreal to me," says Omar, whose favorite Prince song, "When Doves Cry," was revealed on social media.

"My family was big music lovers. American music was a big deal when I was younger in our home in Mogadishu. Prince, Jackson 5, Lionel Richie — all of these American iconic singers were very much present," she says. "I never really imagined that I would live and grow up and be nurtured in the same city and state as one of them. And that I would someday represent that city and state and be able to introduce legislation in honoring this iconic human being that's been part of my life story in many ways."

Though she never had a chance to meet Prince, Omar says his presence was — and still is — impossible to avoid in the city she represents.

"There were always sightings of him that were taking place," says Omar, who once attended a party Prince hosted but on a night when the singer wasn't greeting fans. "Every single space that you're in, you're experiencing him. There are so many landmarks in Minneapolis and throughout our state that are known for Prince, that Prince helped make famous … There's just a lot of him that's woven into the fabric of our community."

Ilhan Omar
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

That visibility, combined with Prince's long list of accomplishments, is part of what makes him worthy of the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress, according to Omar and her fellow Minnesota lawmakers.

"He grew up and was part of a community in Minneapolis that is very disenfranchised and very much out of mind, out of sight," Omar explains. "A lot of people that grew up in that community and similar communities felt seen by his presence and his rise. It's always inspiring when you are living in a space where someone like Prince grows into this iconic figure. It does create a sense of limitlessness for you to believe that no matter where you begin, you can create a lasting memory and a lasting legacy."

Omar is hopeful for the nonpartisan resolution that would award the medal to Prince, even though it must be sponsored by two-thirds of members in both the House and the Senate to be adopted.

"It is promising that we have the full Minnesota delegation, Democrats and Republicans. That sets us up for success," says the headline-making progressive who often draws conservative (and some Democratic) ire for her stances on police reform, Israel's government and other issues. "Everyone has bought into what this means, not only for our state but for the country. I think there's a lot of excitement around it."

Prince and Shelby J perform onstage at The Hollywood Palladium on March 8, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Prince with singer Shelby J on tour in 2013. Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Whether or not the medal is awarded, Omar and her colleagues have made history, according to one of her staffers, who shared a tidbit about drafting the bill.

"It took a Herculean effort to get the official Prince symbol written into official legislation because they had to alter the Congressional typeface," the staffer said.

Omar acknowledges another reason to be proud of the Prince Congressional Gold Medal Act she introduced.

"With everything that is happening," she says of the political climate in Washington, "this is one really cool thing to work on that brings so many people together who can't even be in the same room."

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