Kinetochores assemble on distinct 'centrochromatin' containing the histone H3 variant CENP-A and interspersed nucleosomes dimethylated on H3K4 (H3K4me2). Little is known about how the chromatin environment at active centromeres governs centromeric structure and function. Here, we report that centrochromatin resembles K4-K36 domains found in the body of some actively transcribed housekeeping genes. By tethering the lysine-specific demethylase 1 (LSD1), we specifically depleted H3K4me2, a modification thought to have a role in transcriptional memory, from the kinetochore of a synthetic human artificial chromosome (HAC). H3K4me2 depletion caused kinetochores to suffer a rapid loss of transcription of the underlying α-satellite DNA and to no longer efficiently recruit HJURP, the CENP-A chaperone. Kinetochores depleted of H3K4me2 remained functional in the short term, but were defective in incorporation of CENP-A, and were gradually inactivated. Our data provide a functional link between the centromeric chromatin, α-satellite transcription, maintenance of CENP-A levels and kinetochore stability.