It could have been any ensemble pop concert, with overpriced pints and ketchup-laden fries, long Portaloo queues and merchandise stands.
But Sunday’s One Love Manchester benefit concert, organized by Ariana Grande just 13 days after a suicide bomber took the lives of 22 people after blowing himself up in the Manchester Arena, was remarkable — and not because of the staggering police presence.
If the event had one theme, it was defiance. When rumors began circulating that the concert would be canceled in the wake of Saturday night’s terrorist attack in central London, Grande’s manager released a statement saying the concert would “not only continue” but would “do so with greater purpose.”
The 23-year-old pop star, who had last been seen looking tearful as she embraced her boyfriend upon her arrival in her hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, returned to Manchester to spend the weekend visiting victims of the attack in hospital before performing for 50,000 people. “Thank you for coming and being so loving, and strong and unified,” she told the crowd. “This unity is the medicine the world really needs right now. I love you so much.”
But the frankest symbol of defiance was the overwhelming presence of Arianators — Grande’s devotees — many of whom had been at the Manchester Arena on May 22. As Grande concluded the concert with an impassioned rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” lights cloaking the crowd in a soft rosy hue, watching the singer’s young fans embrace each other, tears streaking down their cheeks, was a remarkably moving sight.
“Ariana was amazing and the concert was so cool,” 14-year-old Layla, who had been at Grande’s May concert along with her friends Evie and Hollie, both 15, told TIME. “I was close to crying but I didn’t cry.” Evie said she had felt frightened about going to the concert “because of London last night.”
“But Mum felt like I needed closure and she was right,” she added.
Speaking about the Manchester Arena attack, Hollie said: “It was really upsetting to think somebody would do that, especially to kids as well. People come to a concert to have a fun time and then [terrorists] just ruin people’s lives.” The three girls said they had been nervous about the big crowds but were glad to have attended the event.
Closure was a running theme among returning concertgoers. “It’s a bit surreal to be back here, but it felt necessary,” 19-year-old Stephen, who traveled down to Manchester from Scotland to see Grande perform for the second time in a month with his friend Erin, told TIME. “We are still in shock but I think it’s good to come and see Ariana again and get back to normal. We don’t want to let terrorists control us or make us feel fear. We’re just trying to continue with our usual routine.”
Fifteen-year-old Rebecca, whose two best friends lost their moms in the suicide bombing, stood towards the back of the crowd, a brightly-colored Manchester bee — a symbol of the city — painted on her left cheek. “It feels great to be a part of a community with everyone coming together. My whole year at school is here,” she told TIME. Shanna, also 15, had been at school with Olivia Campbell, the first named victim of the attack. “When I heard about the concert, I knew I had to go,” she said.
An 11-year-old concertgoer called Maddison sat with her leg in a cast on a wall by the entrance to the venue, watching thousands of people slowly snaking their way inside. She was accompanied by her older sister, Emma, and a new friend the pair met through a Facebook support group set up for survivors of the May attack.
“I feel quite nervous about being here, with the crowds,” Maddison said, as her sister helped her up to make their way inside. “But I wanted to come back to a concert, to see Ariana and to see that it would be alright.”
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Write to Kate Samuelson / Manchester at email@example.com